Feature

Proofing the Pastry Project

Even before our current restaurant worker shortage, Seattle’s needed more pastry cooks. Two women built a free training program in Pioneer Square; the experiment doesn’t end there.

By Allecia Vermillion Photography by Amber Fouts August 29, 2022

Emily Kim and Heather Hodge built their business around free pastry training.

By the time the Pastry Project opened its blue dutch doors to begin the bake sale, a socially distanced line sputtered down the block. “I thought Pioneer Square was dead,” one member said to her companion, sarcasm dripping like chocolate sauce, as they waited their turn to order brisket kolaches, black sesame conchas, and scoops of strawberry fermented ice cream.

In early August, Bakers Against Racism organized a citywide bake sale to support abortion rights. This old brick building next to the Pioneer Square fire station served as headquarters for participating bakeries that didn’t have their own brick-and-mortar space. The next afternoon it was back to the usual summer program of dispensing soft serve cones through those dutch doors. And not just any cones. Majestically swirled turrets of chocolate or vanilla saturated with sprinkles—or cake crumbles or sticky toffee sauce or strawberry passionfruit hardshell—until they resemble a fast-melting Christmas tree.

The Pastry Project carved its headquarters out of space once used by the London Plane.

Image: Amber Fouts

The Pastry Project wields style as a powerful marketing tool, from Insta-friendly soft serve to the matching aprons its students wear when they report for day one of a 14-week pastry training. The program’s entirely free, right down to those aprons, even transit stipends.

Founders Emily Kim and Heather Hodge teach classes, sell subscription pastry boxes, rent out their kitchen space, and do anything else they can think of to cover the costs for two small cohorts a year. The duo met working at Molly Moon’s Ice Cream. They didn’t know each other that well when they decided to form their own business to fill the gap they saw between people who want to make sweet things for a living and people who have mastered the necessary basics to keep pace in a professional kitchen.

Of course, restaurant workers of any kind are hard to find right now. “We are short everywhere,” says Anthony Anton, president and CEO of Washington Hospitality. “Pastry is no different. What’s different is, because pastry is niche, that shortage becomes compounded.”

Jennifer Shea of Trophy Cupcakes and Party recalls the market for pastry cooks and bakers getting even tighter around 2017. The French-based Le Cordon Bleu culinary school had shut down all its U.S. schools, including a program in Tukwila a year before. In 2018, high operation costs felled the small but popular pastry program at South Seattle College, a hiring pipeline for businesses like Trophy. “It just went down drastically,” she recalls of the applicant pool. This spring, only a public outcry saved Seattle Central College’s culinary program from closing, though it’s not clear what the curriculum will be with a reduced budget. 

Hodge gets hands-on with her instruction as Sheila and Claudia observe.

Image: Amber Fouts

The Pastry Project runs two four-person sessions a year; sending eight people, max, out into the world with job skills won’t even begin to stanch the shortage. But in an industry that’s molting its accepted truths, Hodge and Kim are testing a new kind of business model. One that goes way beyond good-looking soft serve.

Strictly speaking, Hodge allows, “desserts are not necessary.” We don’t need them for nourishment. “But it is the special thing in our lives.” Seattle’s chef shortage might deliver uneven or over-salted dishes to your table, or keep your favorite restaurant closed a few extra nights a week. Insufficient front-of-house staff can yield spotty service. As Hodge puts it, a shortage of pastry workers means that special thing in our lives “might taste way less special.” And in the continuously stoked trash fire of modern life, a small bit of joy is no small thing.

 

The energy inside the Pastry Project’s kitchen is very first day of school. Light pours through tall windows, over four women in matching aprons gathered around a slim, marble-topped island. The third cohort has begun. In Hodge’s kitchen, the road to a career in butter and ovens starts with cookies. Cookies start with creaming.

Hodge sports milkmaid braids, kitchen clogs, and striped chef pants neatly hemmed into shorts. She radiates camp counselor capability. “Everything we bake in here, we’re gonna bake on parchment,” she tells the group as she snaps the paddle attachment onto an industrial-size KitchenAid. Unlike waxed paper, “it goes right in the compost.”

Her lessons are part science, part pro tips, like keeping a rag tucked just so in your apron, so it’s always handy, or which spatula-scraping technique yields the most control. Kim swoops in for resume workshopping, interview prep, and much of the support that comes after.

Creaming butter and sugar together is as basic as it gets. But basic doesn’t equal foolproof. Butter really needs to be room temperature, Hodge tells the group—“if you stick a thermometer in it, 75 degrees Fahrenheit.” Leaving it on your counter for an hour doesn’t cut it. Truly room temperature butter, she explains, has the right consistency to let the mixer paddle do its job: scratching granules of sugar deep into that soft butter, creating tiny air pockets in the process. Bad creaming means busted cookies, half stiff and half runny.

The third cohort learns the art of croissants.

Image: Amber Fouts

Four women listen attentively. Sheila, Terri, Melissa, and Claudia are different ages, come from different backgrounds, and arrived for different reasons. They’ve got different approaches to sensible footwear: clogs, Converse, neon Nikes. For the next 14 weeks, Hodge will spend each Friday (or the occasional Saturday) training them on the basics, from quick breads and patisserie to kitchen communication. Some days they make croissants or rose cream cheese danishes for the subscription goody boxes that help pay for the program.

The group scatters to their workstations to apply their inaugural lesson to a batch of chocolate chip cookies. This cohort arrived with plenty of experience baking in their own kitchens. Still, “I’ve been doing this wrong,” muses Terri, almost to herself, as everyone chops chocolate and scales measurements under Hodge’s watch.

Back at Molly Moon’s, Hodge was head chef, overseeing a kitchen that produces “gallons upon gallons” of ice cream, plus all the caramel, ganaches, and cookie crumbles that run through each flavor. Kim was director of social impact and community relations, trying to recruit hires by working with local nonprofits. Working the register was one thing. When she tried to supply Hodge with entry-level ice cream makers, “it was hard to offer them a position if they didn’t have any kitchen experience,” says Kim. That experience confers less glamorous knowledge like avoiding cross-contamination, . Even accomplished home bakers aren’t necessarily prepared for big-batch recipes, says Hodge. “I see a lot of scaling mistakes.”

She thinks pastry’s particular struggle “is a bit of a supply and demand thing.” A larger restaurant has multiple cooks, maybe one pastry chef. Maybe. The person making dessert and bread wields a specialized set of skills separate from those on the line. As a team of one, you can’t train anybody else up, says Hodge. “It’s not like I’m going to start as a dishwasher, then work my way to pastry.”

Kim lives in Pioneer Square, in a loft every inch as considered as her branding for the Pastry Project. In 2019 she saw the Alliance for Pioneer Square offering an inspiration fund grant: Money for endeavors that keep Seattle’s oldest neighborhood (still very much alive, though contending with myriad challenges) a vibrant place. The news they would receive $12,000 to pilot this notion of a training program was both exciting and terrifying, Hodge remembers (they’ve since received additional grant money).

Their model, inspired in part by London’s Luminary Bakery, was unusual. So was their decision to register the business as a for-profit social enterprise, rather than a more traditional nonprofit. Without getting too into the tax code weeds, it’s a model that lets them accept donations and support their community-minded goals, but also be entrepreneurial.

Students graduate from the 14-week training with enough skills to enter a professional pastry kitchen.

Image: Amber Fouts

“It’s harder to be in control when you’re at the mercy of asking other people to donate money,” says Kim. Control is precisely what she and Hodge wanted for this new thing they were building. They’re not beholden to a board, they can be politically active. They realize, it seems weird for a fledgling business to spend $80,000 per year giving away its skills for free. “But why not? Why not be a model?” says Kim, on a break from stamping the Pastry Project logo on the next batch of monthly goody boxes. Attempting something new is as much the point as making sure more people know the right way to make cookies. “I mean, the community supports businesses, why can’t businesses support the community?”

In its first few years, the Pastry Project’s job placement has been spotty, mostly due to factors way outside the program’s control. The barriers that keep people from entering the program in the first place tend to rear up again when it’s time to find a job. One member of the Pastry Project’s first cohort, Hana Yohannes, went on to found Shikorina Pastries in the Central District. Other early participants bowed out due to Covid-related hardships or immutable family obligations.

Historically, the domain of baking has been far more welcoming to women than the kitchen’s savory side. Which means caretaking or a fraught domestic environment might peel away talented cake makers and bread bakers when it comes time to pound the pavement. When barriers are financial, it can make more sense for graduates to stick to higher-paying retail jobs. Hodge and Kim learned early on to screen for applicants who truly want to bake versus people who just want a job. Because Hodge knows, “There’s no good reason right now for folks to be entering this industry, except for the fact that they’re passionate about it, and it’s what their soul is telling them to do.”

 

Before Ali Liao started work at Lavish Roots Catering and Hospitality, they didn’t know disposable gloves come in lengths long enough to cover your entire arm, right up to the shoulder. Less than a week in, Liao found themselves wearing one of these gloves, reaching elbow deep into a 30-kilo batch of blondie batter. “That way you can get a bowl scraper and really get in there” and scrape down the sides of the industrial-size mixer, says Liao. “To make sure everything is incorporated.”

Before being accepted into the Pastry Project’s second cohort, Liao’s cooking resume consisted of making pies at a Queen Anne Pizza Hut. “Sometimes I still feel like I’m dreaming a little bit,” Liao confesses of this new life in pastry. Making 150 brownies for a Pastry Project goody box was barely a dress rehearsal compared with Lavish Roots, where a team might produce 2,000 cookies or blondies a day for the offices of a tech company client.

Students might go on to make brownies or other bar cookies by the thousands at a catering company.

Image: Amber Fouts

Like a ton of kids, Liao grew up watching the Food Network, but in a household with two immigrant parents working full-time, food was perfunctory, not pleasure. Liao acquired some basic cooking skills upon matriculating at the University of Washington. They watched YouTube videos on baking, even dabbled in dorm croissants. Parent-approved science classes only amplified their interest in baking.

Liao’s parents worked construction and cleaned hotel rooms. “They came to the U.S. and did these hard labor jobs that are available for people who don’t know English.” Liao knew their budding desire to work in pastry deviated from the family plan: “Go to college, do really well, and get higher-paying jobs with degrees.”

Every position they applied to required a year or two of high-level production experience; Pizza Hut didn’t count. After school, just before the pandemic, Liao got a job working the counter at Sea Wolf Bakers. They hoped to train on baking during slow hours, but customers kept them busy at the register. “I really wanted to get my hands on some dough.”

Liao found the Pastry Project through Instagram; shortly after graduation, Kim and Hodge circulated a job listing at Lavish Roots. Today, Liao regularly reaps the large-batch benefits of Hodge’s first-day creaming lesson, which proved a revelation after YouTube videos. “You’re actually supposed to do this for a lot longer than I thought you were… It’s a massive difference from baking at home.”

Recently Liao’s been learning more advanced techniques, like using the in-house press to fashion some walnut and raisin tarts. Now their dad tells Liao, “maybe you’ll open your own bakery.”

 

It’s guest speaker day back at the Pastry Project kitchen. Jasmin Bell Smith sprays edible glitter onto a sheet tray of lavender macarons. Delighted gasps rise from the students gathered around her at the center island on this late fall morning.

The owner of Bells Pastries sports a “Happy Halloween” apron and dispenses some real talk on decorating. Eleven weeks in, Terri, Sheila, Melissa, and Claudia are attempting their own macarons; their efforts will be part of this month’s subscription boxes. By now everyone is in Crocs, including Smith.

Before everyone scatters to their work stations, Smith discusses the merits of jimmies—aka sprinkles—versus round nonpareils. If you want people to enjoy eating your confections, she tells the group, forget about those tiny rock-hard candy balls. “You guys, that is for decor.”

In a few weeks, the quartet will prep their final goody boxes and graduate. Hodge and Kim’s ceremony involves a special luncheon and lots of dessert. They give each graduate a cookbook that reflects a particular interest. They also get busy connecting graduates with the network of hiring partners they established when they started the Pastry Project. Roughly 35 companies—from large-scale operations like Macrina or Trophy Cupcakes or Lavish Roots, to dessert shops like Hot Cakes—consider Pastry Project grads qualified for entry-level positions in their commercial kitchens.

By now the cohort has developed a companionable kitchen rapport, chatting about the weather and turning the oven on for one another. Melissa wants to make her family’s pan sobao, a soft Puerto Rican bread, to sell at farmers markets. Sheila has plans for her own business too, but she wants to work at a bigger bakery first. “It takes money to make money.” Increasingly those larger operations define a new aspect of Seattle’s pastry landscape.

 

As executive pastry chef at Lavish Roots Catering and Hospitality, Aimee Graham’s team makes a combined 20,000 pieces of pastry and dessert each week, from morning croissants and vegan rosemary scones to rosewater panna cotta, chocolate tahini cookies, and yeasted blueberry cake later in the day. The first shift reports at 4:45am; the last one rolls out at midnight.

TL;DR: She’s hiring. Lavish Roots caters weddings and events, but a huge chunk of its business comes from catering for a major tech company in town. As Microsoft, Facebook, and Google compete for local talent, a steady stream of good food can help persuade an engineer or programmer to accept an offer. Graham, meanwhile, finds herself recruiting people who don’t even live in state.

She’s a regular guest speaker at the Pastry Project. Other job training programs in the city focus mostly on savory, she says. “Which I understand, because that’s where the jobs are. But people who like pastry are a little bit different.”

In spring, Graham returned to speak with a new cohort. This time she brought Ali Liao. A full-circle guest barely a year removed from the student kitchen, Liao joined Graham to discuss high-volume production and what they look for when hiring.

This group, Hodge and Kim’s fourth, graduated in May. On Sunday, they received the traditional luncheon, cookbook, and dessert spread that feted Sheila, Terri, Claudia, and Melissa six months earlier. The next day, applications went live for the fall session. “We get a little bit more each time,” says Kim. A record 25 people sought one of those four spots.

The cake decorating session is a highlight for some students, a frustration for others.

Image: Amber Fouts

After seeing previous graduates waylaid before obtaining a job in their new field, the duo started working on career placement before graduation, “while we still have them here,” as Hodge puts it. One graduate now makes ice cream at Molly Moon’s; another became Aimee Graham’s second hire at Lavish Roots. On their last official day of class, a member of the previous cohort stopped by to say hello. Terri took a photo with Hodge and Kim during her visit; a few weeks later, she began a new overnight baking shift at the PCC in Columbia City.

The kitchen is quiet as the Pastry Project’s founders sit by the windows one afternoon and talk about what’s next: A line of take-and-bake cookie dough, based on that recipe students bake on their first day of class as part of the lesson on creaming. Later this year, their dough will land in the freezer aisles of local grocery stores, even ship nationwide.

“We’re trying to make this the thing that we really grow,” says Kim. Weariness creeps into the edges of her voice as she anticipates having one revenue stream to fund their training program, “versus doing so many things.”

Even with a cookie dough brand afoot, the training program remains the cornerstone of what they do, says Hodge. Her voice catches, unexpectedly. All the in-person and virtual classes, the graduation, and the impending large-scale product launch have seemingly piled up inside of her. “It’s hard to not get emotional talking about it,” she says of the training. “It’s been a hard couple weeks.”

In June, the Pastry Project started selling its dough out of those blue dutch doors. Kim and Hodge worked with designer Erin Wallace on the sharp multi-colored packaging. Pop the frozen dough balls in the oven (on parchment) and they spread into thick, perfect cookies, soft in the middle, edges just slightly brown. In other words, it was creamed impeccably.

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