Cordon Bleu Students Learn Art of Pan Dulce
Summer interns get real world experience at La Fama.
By Ileana Najarro, EGP Staff Writer
Alejandra Reyes steps into La Fama Panaderia at the early hour of 5 a.m., where a large steaming oven and empty display cases and trays wait to be filled. Still sleepy, she stays awake by reciting her chef’s go-to phrase over and over again in her head: “Another day in paradise.”
Reyes isn’t in her “paradise” to buy bread—she’s there to make it.
Lea esta nota EN ESPANOL: Estudiantes de Culinaria Aprenden el Arte del Pan Dulce en el Este de LA
She and her cousin Michelle Cano have spent the last six weeks interning as bakers at La Fama Panaderia, a popular Mexican bakery in East Los Angeles. The summer internship was a requirement for their baking and pastry studies at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles.
La Fama opened over 50 years ago as a family-run business that to this day continues to draw multiple generations of local families. The cousins are the popular bakery’s first interns, according to its general manager, Dan Morales.
“There’s a lot of history here and to be able to give a helping hand in the way of this internship was a good feeling,” Morales said of the experience.
But before the girls could suit up in one of East Los Angeles’s oldest running bakeries — which claims as one of its honors the baking of a large concha (round filled sweet bread) for the 10th anniversary of the popular Spanish language television show “Sabado Gigante” — Reyes and Cano first had to endure rejections from other local bakeries, an experience that almost dashed their summer baking hopes.
According to Reyes, since neither of the girls had access to a car they were hoping to find an internship opportunity near their homes in East Los Angeles. And even though the girls already had at least a year of baking and pastry making training from Le Cordon Bleu under their belts, it seemed no one was willing to give them a chance. In some cases, they said, their schooling actually backfired on them.
“Most of the bakeries from here didn’t want someone that was actually studying, so we were going around and most of the people said no or didn’t call us,” Reyes told EGP.
While Reyes admits that some bakeries did tell them why they were refusing to take them on, such as the bakery that said they already had too many bakers on staff, others were more cryptic in providing an explanation, she said.
At “some of them we just walked in and they were looking at us from top to bottom. [They] were like no, no thank you,” Reyes said.
But Cano finally heard back from Morales who accepted the girls’ offer to work for free in exchange for hands-on experience. Yet even at La Fama, the girls’ Cordon Bleu schooling was taken into account by the establishment’s two longtime bakers, as they discussed whether to accept novice bakers into their kitchen.
“When the owners told us that they had schooling background I did consider it in my decision,” said Antonio Ángeles, a baker at La Fama for over nine years, speaking in Spanish.
Ángeles learned about bread making from working in bakeries in Mexico, where he started his training at a very young age. He said he realized that this would be a great opportunity for him and his partner to pass on what they had learned in what he calls “a school if its own.”
“I figured they had to bring some notion of baking, but this is a bigger school because here we’re live and in person making the masa (dough).”
Ángeles explained that even the way the bakery is set up created a different atmosphere than what the girls were used to. Since there is no clear division between the storefront and the kitchen, customers can see the entire baking process.
The girls started making bread a few days into the internship, but quickly realized they could not fall back on what they had learned at Le Cordon Bleu, because making even regular bread at La Fama was a completely new experience. For instance, the girls knew how to make baguettes, but La Fama only sells bolillos, smaller and lighter versions of the bread that requires tactful practice to get the softer texture.
“At first it was overwhelming because we’re not used to it,” Reyes said.
Reyes prefers making cupcakes and artistically assembling, or plating, desserts like fruit tarts. While she and her cousin had already taken bread-making classes along with their favored pastry courses, focusing only on the different versions of larger sweet breads in higher quantities on a daily basis was challenging. Not to mention doing it in a kitchen where every ingredient must be made from scratch to ensure the signature La Fama flavor; a sweet flavor that Ángeles said has kept customers coming back for generations.
Eventually, however, the girls would start to trade off on projects with the bakers who would give them constant feedback and guidance.
“They’d tell us to take our time and there’s no pressure, and they tell us what we do wrong and what we don’t,” Reyes said. “They expect a lot from us and that’s the whole point of it, they expect a lot and then we have to give it to them.”
Reyes laughs when she recalls that her most difficult task was making elotes, small rolled up bread with shaped ridges filled with cinnamon.
“[Antonio] noticed that I wasn’t doing them perfect so one day he told me to do a whole batch of them and that’s when I started getting the hang of it and now I do them on my own,” Reyes said.
Morales notes that the internship served as a bartering opportunity in which the girls got real world experience by working alongside veteran bakers and the bakers got some extra help and recognition as teachers of their culinary art.
The young women said they got involved in baking because of the creative outlet it offered, and according to Reyes, that’s what the internship provided.
Both hope to one day master their skills and open their own family-run bakery or pastry shop in East Los Angeles. The aspiring cousins are already talking about color motifs and the building size of their dreams. But they both recognize that they still have much to learn before they get there.
In the meantime, Morales said that La Fama is willing to host more interns in the future but that there will still be some caveats:
“We are open to doing it but we want to make sure that the people we get involved have the same desire and interest these young ladies have.”
La Fama is located at 420 N. Ford Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90022
July 19, 2012 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.