Hot Bread Kitchen may be easy to miss when closed. La Marqueta, which serves as a place to purchase and view their freshly baked breads, is shuttered. The black of the evening and the lack of street lights make it an easy miss when going past 115th Street and Park Avenue. Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) is under the Metro North rails and bookended by apartment complexes on either side. It's a large metal box of a place. But, delve further to the back entrance on 114th. This is the entryway into the behind-the-scenes action. Make sure to wear your cap once you enter and soon you'll be hit with the varying smells and the aromas of the array of goodies being made inside. You'll pass by smaller kitchens, caged racks of ingredients ranging from canned to bottled goods to everyday condiments. There's the rustle, bustle, and hustle of a 24-hour operating machine with staff preparing items for shipments, slicing breads that have cooled, making & packaging of injera or cookies. Pass the ovens and the proofing stations, the heat hitting you like a wall when you walk by the convection ovens, slipping past the tortilla making station hidden in a corner as you make your way to the office. Give a hearty handshake to head chef Ben Hershberger, then into the meeting area with a glass door separating it and the prep station with baking trainees slapping dough onto counters as they knead and shape them. Once in the meeting room, after all your senses have been piqued, you'll be met by the smiling faces of Robin, HBK's business manager, and Twee, HBK's marketing manager, along with fellow food bloggers Maggy, Sara, and Emily.
Founder Jessamyn Rodriguez started Hot Bread Kitchen in her Brooklyn kitchen years ago. Since then it has expanded to Spanish Harlem and has incorporated many women of various backgrounds with knowledge of food preparation (or really foods that are innate to their background) arming them with the opportunity to work in a commercial kitchen to expand on a family dish, learn more about the culinary industry, and move on to create their own business. This model has not just expanded for the baking trainees that have started their own businesses and branched out to become recognized names in NYC, but includes smaller, somewhat established companies with the help of HBK's LIFE program for low income food entrepreneurs initiated through the HBK Incubates Program for those looking to expand their culinary business. These programs provide help on the business/organizational side that may have your brain ready to explode if your main focus is on the product and not so much the administrative and financial aspects of it. HBK's programs are becoming widely known in the foodie community as more businesses start small or solely online and seek to branch out to meet growing demand. In addition to that you can rent a kitchen space should your home not be enough at hourly rates and those who are not as fluent in English can get conversational help onsite from vetted volunteers.
The basis for HBK's beginnings is empowering those with little or no work experience, yet they may have a great knowledge of the foods they've been making since their youth, specifically breads. By fostering this gift of presenting a family dish or item that signifies one's home country provides more diversity in the availability of good, natural, and often healthy, locally made items to the mecca of New York City. Businesses such as Taste of Ethiopia, Broadway Baker, Itizy, and Nina's Empanadas can be found throughout the five boroughs. The originators of these businesses share spaces in Hot Bread Kitchen while HBK staff mills around prepping doughs to be baked and breads for distribution around New York City at hotels like the Waldorf Astoria as well as the chain Chop't, Whole Foods, and farmers markets throughout Manhattan.
After learning Hot Bread Kitchen's mission we sampled some of the bread they had to offer and steadily fell in love with one even more than the next to the point that a grocery list was building in all our minds of what we'd purchase once the tour ended.
M'smen is a flaky Moroccan bread that may, from first sight, make you think of naan but is actually lighter and more buttery. It's a Moroccan pancake of sorts and may best be compared to the lightness of a crepe but with layers. Plain is great with honey or on its own. We also tried a stuffed version with caramelized onions, kale, and cheese that is a wonderful savory treat and good enough to have for dinner. There was also nan-e barbari, a Persian flatbread with a crispy crust and chewy interior that is superb alone (actually everything is superb by itself) or with butter and cheeses as a spread or for flatbread sandwiches. It's more than a foot long so would be ideal for parties. Mexican conchas you may see in different variations in stores. It's a sweet topped bread that is also slightly sweet in the bread itself and super soft. We tried ones with chocolate and vanilla toppings. And last you have the staple of ciabatta often seen in your fancier or chain salad/sandwich shops for sandwiches and as a side for soups and such. All were served right out of the oven. (You're drooling at the thought, aren't you? I figured as much.) In your palm was the warmth of freshly baked bread that was the perfect taste in your mouth melting on your tongue like chocolate. Each had it's own distinct flavor that was enhanced with it's temperature making you roll your eyes with a kind of "Good God is this what heaven is like in bread form?" pleasure.
Our tour included some tasting of pepita multigrain bread that was still hot, so much so that when breaking it in half the steam rose from the bun. The pepita seeds had that crunchy nutty flavor with the multigrain that was a nice hearty treat you'd want to curl up in bed with.
Our last taste, and one we were all anxious for once we heard about the cultural background of this sweet bread, was the pan de muerto (a new item available now until November 3rd at farmer's markets). This bread is reminiscent of challah in look and texture but has sesame seeds and a kind of cross with a ball in the middle marking the bread representing bones and a skull. It's a nice sweet item to eat in the morning with tea or coffee and is absolutely delectable when warm. It also holds heat well. When I warmed mine in the oven and brought it to the office (hour subway ride) and finally delved in there were still traces of heat inside. Delicious meet delicious.
If you'd like your own insider look at Hot Bread Kitchen and La Marqueta see Mike Colameco's segment on them on Real Food. He visits with Jessamyn, Ben, and some of the bakers that utilize the HBK space as well as baking trainees. Everyone is all smiles, which was also the case during my visit. A hard-working and focused staff that does what they love and is making food to not only exert their own creativity but to bring people pleasure and closer together is and has always been the aim of food. Hot Bread Kitchen is helping people to continue this tradition with the understanding that everyone has a specialty, and it may be food-related.