This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.
Meeting with Jessamyn Waldman was a close-up reminder of the multi-faceted creativity and perseverance it will require to build a new food system in this country. Jessamyn has her own perspective on sustainability, a powerful one, of immigrant justice and fair labor practices, and one she has made manifest by baking bread, a substance she considers simultaneously cultural and universal, common, and yet symbolic.
Hot Bread Kitchen is a non-profit bakery business that provides employment opportunities for immigrant women while honoring and preserving their bread-making skills and traditions. Just over a year after founding the Kitchen, Jessamyn now works part-time with four bakers to produce a small set of breads: French baguettes and multi-grain loaves, Italian focaccia, hand-ground Mexican corn tortillas, and an organic, Armenian lavash. The ingredients in the bread are locally grown and organic whenever possible. While the women of Hot Bread Kitchen sell at the community market in Dumbo and at the Brooklyn Flea, most of their breads go to wholesale customers. Their products can be found in Manhattan at Eli’s and Saxelby Cheesemongers, and in Brooklyn at Blue Apron Fine Foods, Foragers Market, Get Fresh,Greene Grape Provisions, Marlow & Sons, Stinky Brooklyn, Urban Rustic, and Victory Café.
Jessamyn rushed in late to our meeting at Blue Marble, and while I was afraid the whole conversation might be conducted out of breath, she was poised and articulate within seconds. Originally from Toronto, Jessamyn came to New York for graduate school, and previously worked for the United Nations, as well as several NGOs, all of which were primarily related to migration issues. After finding herself “totally uninspired,” most of her time spent on administration and paper work, she tried education, hoping it would prove to be a more hands-on, satisfying field. “I did a good stint in New York City public schools,” she said. “But the bakery idea developed, over years of meeting people – funders and investors – and I eventually came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be happy in any other job until I tried it.”
While working part-time as the administrator at a local high school, Jessamyn earned her Master Baker Certificate from The New School. She then began work as a baker at the New York restaurant Daniel. She looked into organizations with moderately similar missions to her own, including Mama’s Hot Tamales in Los Angeles, Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, and St. John’s Bakery in Toronto. She founded Hot Bread Kitchen in May 2007, and received a grant from the Eileen Fisher Grant Program for Women Entrepreneurs in November 2007.
Jessamyn attributes the in-progress-success of her business not only to the quality of her breads, but also, primarily, to the overwhelming appeal of the idea behind the bakery. “The last thing I want to do is come across as benevolent, as a do-gooder,” she said. “But I provide a living wage. It’s paid training. And I think the women I’ve worked with greatly appreciate the opportunity to have that.” Jessamyn founded Hot Bread Kitchen with the knowledge that in New York City, immigrants make up 66% of low-wage workers, and the majority of immigrant women get stuck in low-paid domestic work. She recognized that the overwhelming majority of bakers in the city are men, even while immigrant women often have valuable bread-making skills and experience from their home countries. New York has hundreds of restaurants, representing dozens of ethnicities, Jessamyn mentioned, “and almost all cuisines include some sort of baked bread-like substance. But few restaurants actually make their own bread.” “It’s a powerful symbol,” she said. “Bread works as an image and a concept. There’s something very visceral about it. It conveys the message of multiculturalism.”
Hot Bread Kitchen bakers currently include women from Afghanistan, Togo, Mexico, and Ecuador. They currently bake bread only a few times a week, in the commercial kitchen of the Artisan Baking Center in Long Island City. As employees, the bakers are offered weekly ESL classes, taught by volunteers. Jessamyn looks forward to the growth of Hot Bread Kichen, to the establishment of a permanent bakery location, and to offering the bakers full-time jobs. A recent recipient of the 2008 Echoing Green Fellowship, Jessamyn is only now able to devote herself full-time to Hot Bread Kitchen.