Leslie Barbaro

Hot Bread Kitchen, a New York City bakery founded by Jessamyn W. Rodriguez, produces acclaimed multiethnic breads while creating job opportunities for female immigrants.

After a decade of fighting for human rights and social justice at the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations, Jessamyn W. Rodriguez decided to merge her love of baking with her good intentions.

Hot Bread Kitchen, which she founded in 2008, is a nonprofit organization that hires immigrant and low-income women and teaches them how to bake bread, drawing inspiration from their home countries. Profits from HBK’s sales are used to provide employees with classes in English, baking technology and computer skills so they can eventually pursue careers in the culinary arts. To date, 45 women from 17 different countries have passed through Hot Bread Kitchen’s doors, and last year Rodriguez was honored with a Clinton Global Citizen Award from the Clinton Global Initiative. Here, she talks to American Way.

American Way: Tell us about Hot Bread Kitchen.

Jessamyn W. Rodriguez: We’re a nonprofit social enterprise that’s dedicated to helping really diversify the artisanal food market. We have two unique and interrelated food programs. Our larger program is a baking training program for immigrant and minority women. We help women get better jobs in the culinary industry or start their own food businesses. If they are interested in starting their own food businesses, we run a kitchen-incubator program where we offer licensed commercial kitchen space to small-food entrepreneurs.

AW: How did the idea come about?

JWR: The seed came back in 2000, when I interviewed for a job at a ­fabulous women’s microfinance institution called Women’s World Banking. I didn’t get the entry-level position, but I told a friend about it, and he heard “Women’s World Baking.” That chain of words together was very evocative to me. I imagined­ an immigrant women’s baking collective that brings women together to share food and stories.

AW: Where did you learn to bake?

JWR: I forged a career in other areas first, but at some point I realized I had to learn how to really bake if I wanted to launch this. So I took a couple of baking classes, but I really lucked out when I got a two-year apprenticeship at [New York’s] restaurant Daniel. At this point, the company’s baking has well outstripped my own expertise, but I got enough knowledge to get started.

AW: Can you give an example of a success story?

JWR: One employee, Rhizlane, emigrated by herself from Morocco. As soon as she came into the kitchen, we could see that she was going to be successful. She had great dough hands and dexterity, moved quickly, and displayed a strong work ethic and determination. Within nine months she became a shift manager and is now working at the French bakery chain Maison Kayser. Artisan bread is a growing area of interest, and there’s a strong demand for graduates. In 10 years, I’d like to see Hot Bread Kitchen in five more cities.

AW: Where can people find your products?

JWR: The bakery’s products are carried by retailers, green markets and restaurants across the metropolitan region and online. Visitors to the city can stop by HBK’s bakery storefront, Hot Bread Almacen, located in Spanish Harlem’s historic La Marqueta, for breakfast or lunch.

AW: What was your approach when convincing stores in the NYC area, like Whole Foods, to buy the bread?

JWR: I think with social enterprises, many people try to lead with the social mission and hope the people will buy the product. Our breads are the best in the city, and I always lead with the quality of the breads. That combination of a mission-focused organization with a high-quality product is an unstoppable combination.



Fresh from the Oven

Here are a few popular picks from Hot Bread Kitchen:

Heritage Corn Tortillas: Available in yellow, blue or white corn, these tortillas are made from stone-ground, organic, non-GMO corn with a touch of lime. Wheat-free, vegan and delicious.

Moroccan M’smen: This versatile, flaky flatbread made from organic wheat flour, semolina and butter is traditionally eaten with honey for breakfast.

Armenian ­Lavash Crackers: Great with cheese or hummus, lavash is a crispy flatbread found in Armenia and Iran that’s flavored with za’atar — a mixture of thyme, sumac and sesame.