Roll call: Frosted cakes with dainty rosebuds made of piped icing? Here. Layered pastries filled with creme? Tartlets layered with chocolate ganache and drizzled caramel? Cookies with the ideal balance of sweetness, a hint of salt and just the right amount of chew? Here, here and here.
Whether in a homegrown patisserie or the bakery section of a Safeway, the best pastries and baked goods are the result of tireless hours of technique and culinary understanding. Baking is an art and a science. Understanding the way ingredients combine and how mixing, whipping, kneading and setting techniques affect texture, taste and aesthetic requires practice, learning and training, like any other craft or trade skill.
When Heather Hodge and Emily Kim were working at Molly Moon’s Ice Cream of Seattle — Kim as the director of social impact and Hodge as the head chef — they realized this acutely. Kim worked with nonprofits and community partners to match people looking for economic opportunities with jobs at the local ice cream company. Fielding people into front-of-house positions was easy, but it was much harder to place potential recruits with a job in the kitchen, actually making the ice creams, cones and other treats the brand is known for.
“It really did require more experience, because we needed employees to hit the ground running,” Hodge said. And at a busy place like Molly Moon’s, there wasn’t necessarily time to train someone who has little experience with the tools and knowledge needed to work in a kitchen.
One new moon
“Emily and I just realized there was a void that was necessary to be filled to provide exactly what we do — free baking and pastry training — to individuals with barriers to opportunity in the industry,” Hodge said.
That is how The Pastry Project came to be; it’s a free training program for anyone who faces barriers to getting the training needed for bakery and kitchen jobs. The training program is completely free, funded by member goodie boxes, subscription pastry kits and the duo hosting paid classes.
Kim finds community partners to help recruit individuals who are looking to make a career change or find an inroad to the world of baking and pastry-making but may have barriers to access. Once they have a cohort, they spend 14 weeks meeting on weekends to teach the craft of pastry-making, and include marketable skills. Kim and Hodge also ensure their students have job placements by the end of the program with the help of over 20 partners, consisting of Seattle dessert shops, bakeries and grocery stores.
Hodge and Kim meticulously curated their curriculum to ensure they not only taught the basics needed for bakery kitchen work, but that they would be equipping students with skills that were specific to the needs of local businesses. Hodge says they scoured job descriptions to determine the most common and necessary skills to incorporate into the curriculum.
“They do need to learn specific skills so they understand how those recipes work when they go from job to job, because a company is going to do things their specific way,” Hodge said. “But at least if they know specific skills, like the creaming method or how to make pie crust and why you can’t overwork it, and really understand the method behind specific things, that’s important.”
With the pandemic, Hodge and Kim had to learn how to pivot to virtual programs very quickly. Their first cohort of students had just graduated and the pandemic put a wrench in their plans to start their second cohort. Four students are ready to go whenever restrictions are eased enough to resume in-person classes.
Regardless of the times, The Pastry Project’s social impact and community partnerships are key parts of their mission. Having been at Molly Moon’s, Kim and Hodge know the ins and outs of the kitchen industry and recognize there is a long way to go in pay equity.
“We want to be able to advocate, making sure that restaurants and bakeries are providing the best jobs,” Kim said.
When asked about the challenges they’ve faced in trying to advocate for their students in the industry, Hodge says that she and Kim are the type of people who push through any walls that come their way. Through the partnerships they’ve created and the relationships they’ve formed with both Seattle area kitchens and community organizations, they’ve found a great deal of support.
“If there is any pushback we have received, it is us grappling at times with the fact that the industry is filled with a lot of jobs that are not great jobs,” Hodge said. That’s why Kim and Hodge try to steer their students toward job partners they’ve been able to research and connect with already.
Making pie dreams real
Despite COVID-19, Hodge and Kim focus a lot of their attention on continuing the connections they made as mentors to their pilot group, which finished about a year ago, and supporting the mentees who want to start their own businesses.
Hana Yohannes was one of the first students to go through The Pastry Project’s 14-week program, and she reaches out to Hodge and Kim to ask questions about getting her bakery up and running.
Pastry-making was something Yohannes enjoyed doing at home — an obsession that started in middle school, when she would whip up confections from cake mixes.
“I loved giving my pastries to people and seeing how much joy it gave them,” Yohannes said. She heard about The Pastry Project through a traditional school program and applied. Getting into The Pastry Project’s cohort helped her realize baking could be more than a homebound hobby and become her career.
Yohannes said the communication and industry skills she learned alongside the technicalities of pastry work have helped her in her new bakery job. Communication can be blunt: “Communication feels very different in a fast-paced environment, like a kitchen,” she said. “You don’t always have time to say ‘thank you.’”
There are other things, too, that become quintessential in a pastry kitchen. Yohannes said she always works with ounces and grams, since they lead to precise measurements that cups might botch. And in her new job with one of The Pastry Project’s partners, Yohannes says she has become a cookie expert. She’ll know what is missing in a cookie simply by noting color, size and scent.
When Yohannes first interviewed with The Pastry Project, she mentioned an interest in experimenting with flavors, specifically incorporating her family’s Eritrean spices — like berbere — and family recipes into pastry work. “Heather is always there to give me tips on a new recipe,” Yohannes said.
Her biggest dream is to open her own pastry shop; this could come true as soon as January 2021. Currently, Yohannes takes orders for cakes and pastries. But her new pastry stop, Shikorina Pastries, will bring her confections to the public in a spirit of community that continues the legacy of her aunt, the late Rahwa Habte, the beloved community leader, organizer and co-owner of Hidmo Eritrean Cuisine.
Just a few years ago, being able to open something like Shikorina Pastries was “a pipe dream,” Yohannes said. But once the final touches are completed — hopefully in the next month — it will be a concrete reality.
Until recently, The Pastry Project relied on community spaces and the generosity of partners to hold their classes in a borrowed space. However, as of this past November, Hodge and Kim finally secured a permanent space in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. With soft, pastel accents and a large working space with high, vaulted ceilings, Hodge and Kim share their kitchen space with other independent bakers who may need it. Yohannes will sometimes use the industry-grade ovens for her personal catering business orders when she has a particularly large batch she needs to prepare.
Also special about this space is the baking library Hodge and Kim are amassing. It is a first of its kind in Seattle, offering books and resources as well as equipment on a checkout-borrowing basis — further efforts to make the art, craft and work of baking more accessible.
Next: The Pastry Project will host a pop-up Dec. 19 and a take-and-bake cinnamon roll order Dec. 24. For more information, visit thepastryproject.co.
Read more in the Dec. 16-22, 2020 issue.