In the restaurant business, it's not unusual for chefs and bakers to depart their jobs for greener culinary pastures. But for Ben Hershberger, leaving his job as head baker at one of the world's best restaurants was a return to his kitchen roots.
Until last month, Hershberger had been the head baker at New York's Per Se, where customers, including celebrities and the very wealthy often drop upward of $1,000 for dinner and wine. He also oversaw all the bread baking for New York's high-end Bouchon Bakery. He left his job last month to take over as head baker for a very different kind of establishment, called Hot Bread Kitchen, a nonprofit that helps train foreign-born and low-income people to enter the culinary workforce.
Hershberger said the job isn't as big a career change as one might think.
"I've been an educator before," Hershberger told BusinessNewsDaily. "I worked in retail, wholesale and hotels." He has also taught at a community college.
"I saw the opportunity to work in a great kitchen doing great things. I'm still doing what I love to do and I get to teach," he said.
Hershberger's experience in a world-class kitchen was one of the things that landed him the job.
That's because Hot Bread Kitchen was founded on the idea of training future culinary workers by providing them with real-world experience in a kitchen turning out breads that are intended to compete with other high-end bakeries.
In other words, Hershberger will be teaching students – currently there are 12 – how to work in a real kitchen and how to make bread as good as any he made while working at Per Se.
"We're selling high-end breads in the same types of places as other premium bakeries," said Jessamyn Rodriguez, who founded Hot Bread Kitchen in 2008, which also helps launch food industry startups by allowing them to use commercial kitchen space at Hot Bread. In fact, 86 percent of the organization's operating budget comes from the sale of breads — including an ethnic bread basket inspired by the heritages of many of its students — sold through retail outlets, restaurants, New York green markets and on the Hot Bread Kitchen website.
Hershberger said it's not just baking skills he'll be teaching his students, who are paid during their training process.
"Kitchen culture is something that makes us different than a classroom environment," he said. "Learning how to act in the kitchen is something I'm hoping to be able to pass on that will help people move on to another job."
Hershberger said it's often not the cooking part of culinary work that new employees find difficult, but the skills required to work well in the kitchen. He said the training he'll provide at Hot Bread Kitchen will prepare employees for the real world.
"They're not going to be surprised when they get a job," he said. "There are things about working in a kitchen that if no one ever tells you, you just don't know."
Hershberger said the training will help prepare workers for an industry that is actively seeking employees.
"I think you'd be hard pressed right now to find a bakery that's not looking for somebody," he said. "There's a huge need for bakers. Every bakery I know looking for somebody and asking me if I know anybody. Very shortly, I hope to be able to say yes."