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New, Free Baking School Opens in Queens, New York - 2002-10-09

New York City was once a regional capital for fancy baking of all kinds, but during the 1960s and 70s, automated factory bakeries put a lot of people out of work. But a new baking school has just opened in Queens New York that may reverse that trend. It represents a partnership between the city and federal governments, bakery unions, and prospective employers. The Artisan Baking Center is free to all qualified comers who wish to start their careers, change their careers or enhance the baking skills they already have. In just over a year, the school has trained almost 500 people throughout New York City.

It is 4 pm sharp at the Artisan Baking Center in Queens New York, the second day of introductory baking class has just begun, and Maria Mendez and 10 of her fellow students have their ears perked and their pens poised.

"I'm here because I want to learn how to bake because I want to have my own bakery. I would like to have my own business, like to do wedding cakes, birthday parties, all that stuff."

Until nine months ago, Ms. Mendez, was a valued office worker at a local university. She became inspired to pursue a new career path after becoming temporarily disabled in a bad accident. "And I said 'I need to change my life. I want to have something for myself.' So I love to cook, I love to bake and I want to learn more. And the teacher - he is the greatest," she said.

The teacher - David Wasserman, a fourth generation baker - is one of several instructors at the Artisan Baking Center. "We have all different levels of teaching," he said. "We have starting entry level for people that never even saw the bakery. We give them an introduction to all types of mixing methods, introduction to the equipment, and then we have much more advanced classes up to wedding cakes, very fancy work."

Q: "What's the first thing you teach them?"

A: "Every bakery has different types of methods. So the first thing we teach them is 'your boss is your boss.' Always listen to him. We're going to show you our way that we know, and if they show you a different way, always follow your boss."

Q:" Are you trying to make the class fun or are you trying to cram in as much knowledge as you can?"

A: "No. That's way too boring. We definitely try to have fun. I try to get them laughing. Yesterday we made dough for the first time. [It was the] first time they ever saw a box of shortening. I said 'who wants to do it?' One guy raised his hand. He was like 'Okay. How do I take it out?' I said: 'You know how! With your hands!' He got in there and he was, like, "Wow! Acchh!"

Preparing multi-liter batches of sour cream cake batter can be messy. But that risk doesn't bother Michelle McCoy, a fashionably dressed paralegal who read an article about this program in a local newspaper, learned it was free of charge, and immediately applied. "I've always wanted to cook," she said. "Always. I wanted to go to the New York School for Culinary arts. It was too expensive. I just couldn't afford it. $9,000 a year. I came here for orientation. It was wonderful. The staff, everybody [is] wonderful."

Student Stewart Marcus is between careers. "Previously, my old career was in the financial industry and I don't want to go back into something like that," he said. "I want to go into something that was actually creating something. I would love to work in a small bakery somewhere just a small neighborhood shop and produce bread that sustains the people in my neighborhood. "

Q: "So there is something nurturing about baking for you."

A:"Very much so. It's just a way to do something where you can immediately see the impact you have on your fellow man. There is that instant gratification of knowing you are feeding a family and children. And children are smiling at the cookies that you make and the pies that you bake. It's good instant feedback!"

Not all the students at the Artisan Baking Center are sure they want to become bakers. Lisa Marie Rovito, a onetime journalist in her 20s, knew only that she was tired of sitting at a desk and thought that perhaps she could turn a childhood family passion into something more.

A: "My grandma baked just for her family and for us, her grandkids. My mom baked a lot for us growing up and I just bake. It's a way for me to relax like reading or book or watching TV. I guess I'm a bit of a baking snob. I can't stand not to make my own pie crust!"

Q:"So what are you looking to get out of this? More skill? Or do you actually want a career in baking?"

A: "Possibly a career in baking. I think part of it is just being here and discovering if you would like that kind of a career. I've researched it a bit and you are on your feet and you're hot and you're moving a lot, and you're working as a team and you're in a stressful environment. So it's not for everyone. And I'm also interested in party planning. So I think it's related."

But not all students here are relative beginners. Eric Hurtley has been a professional baker for 20 years including several on board a military ship. He's here today to learn something new. "I'm really a cheesecake person," he said. "And I make a lot of cookies. And I just wanted to practice my skills and to get better and take it to the next level. You always have to practice what you do in life in order to get better at it. You always have to stay hungry to get to the top. If you're not hungry, you're not going to make it."