the gentlewoman

The Reader

Jessamyn Rodriguez is the 40-year-old founder and CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen, a social enterprise that teaches low-income immigrant women to bake bread and sells their wares at bakeries and farmers’ markets all across New York. Following a nine-month training programme, each woman is placed in a full-time job that offers benefits. Since Hot Bread Kitchen launched in 2008, over 145 budding bakers from 34 countries have passed through its doors. Some have contributed recipes to its menu – lavash and naan and a particularly delectable Moroccan m’smen. All have given Rodriguez as much as she gives them. Mattie Kahn breaks bread with Jessamyn at Hot Bread Kitchen’s bakery in East Harlem.

Jessamyn Rodriguez

Mattie: We’re coming to the end of a long year, on the brink of the holiday season: how do you strike a happy medium between work and play?

Jessamyn: I love to host and I love to cook, so I’m happiest surrounded by people while preparing in my kitchen. I’ve got a glass of wine, the house is full of people I love – that’s perfect for me. As I cook I get to be in my head a little and have some peace of mind.

M: What’s the secret to a good dinner party, besides a breadbasket and warm butter?

J: It seems quite an obvious thing to say but, good people, good wine, good food – in that order. And I don’t mean fancy food. Grilled cheese can be sublime. My husband and I like to have people over for Shabbat dinners, so lots of challah and chicken soup; pan-seared fish; brisket; roasted vegetables. I just want to eat food that’s homemade and satisfying.

M: Is the brisket a family recipe?

J: It’s a family recipe with improvements.

M: That’s bold! At what point did you feel you could improve on a family recipe?

J: I’ve lived away from my family for many years, so I’ve had some time and space to play a little bit. I really like my brisket. That said I’d have never made it for my grandmother when she was alive.

M: I read that in the early days of Hot Bread Kitchen you used a stationary bike equipped with a mill to manually grind corn for tortillas. Was that part of your business plan?

J: I think I got the bicycle before I had the business plan! Initially, we were soaking and grinding the corn by hand, but we very quickly outgrew that method. We could only do about one pound of corn at a time that way and we were heading towards needing 10 or 12 pounds. So I had this idea of a bicycle that could grind corn and mentioned it to a friend whose father was an architect in Berkeley, California, that specialised in quirky machines. He introduced us, we had one telephone conversation and six weeks later a massive box arrived at my door. In it was a fully elaborated corn-grinding bicycle!

M: And did it work?

J: We used it for maybe six months until demand had grown to the point where we were grinding 25 pounds of corn at a time and our legs were just totally over it from all the pedalling. We had to move on to a mechanized grinder. And now, we grind thousands of pounds of corn a day. We’ve come quite a way since the bike.

Interview by Mattie Kahn. Photograph by Jennifer May; courtesy of Jessamyn Rodriguez. To get your hands on Hot Bread Kitchen's tasty wares, please direct your attention here. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!