When You Knead, a Friend at the Bread Project Café 

The West Berkeley spot serves cheap meals, succulent sweets — and job training for the marginalized.

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In the cafe's glass case are sugar-glazed stollen, packed with gem-bright candied fruit. Nearby are hand-thrown personal pizzas, thick-crusted and so amply adorned with chicken, beef, pickled red onions, and hefty goat-cheese chunks that they resemble domed flying saucers. One might imagine such delights being baked by fairy-tale Teutons and kombucha-quaffing hipsters. But instead, these treats — along with that sourdough sandwich roll, mug of macchiato, and red-velvet cupcake, crowned with a flamboyant frosting rose — were baked and brewed by ex-prison inmates, ex-drug addicts, and the formerly homeless.

Headquartered on the Berkeley Adult School campus but also operating out of an Emeryville bakery thanks to startup funds from Semifreddi's and Chevron, the seven-year-old Bread Project is a steadily expanding nonprofit that offers free job training, job referral, and job-placement services to low-income and formerly homeless people as well as to those struggling with tough employment barriers such as drug histories and criminal or prison records. Last year, 30 percent of its students had criminal records.

At its open-to-the-public cafe, whose sleek spangled countertops and gleaming antique coffee urns were donated by Semifreddi's, the Bread Project offers baked goods and cooked food at bargain prices. Made-to-order meals emerge from its busy kitchen on sturdy paper plates whose domed glass lids white-clad servers whisk off with a flourish. This makes you feel special yet surreal when the meal in question is, say, onion rings, hash browns, and plump, spicy pork sausage — expertly garnished with parsley sprig and jaunty orange-slice twist — in a vast and mostly vacant multipurpose room.

These aren't just meals. They're hopes and dreams. They're careers: sifted, kneaded, beaten, baked, and brushed with egg whites where appropriate.

Breakfast, lunch, and soup du jour specials rotate daily at the cafe. Breakfast is served until closing time. Rustic at first glance, the thick-cut onion rings are clothed in a sneakily sophisticated batter whose haunting herbal bouquet makes you crave an extra order to take home. (At $1, why not?) The hash browns are less hash than big flat latke. Gently fried eggs are freckled with freshly ground black pepper. Pasta tossed with nutty, ruddy Romesco sauce spins red-pepper Catalonian dreams. Among the assorted loaves of fresh bread sold at the cafe for $2 each, an airy-chewy arm's-length ciabatta soaks up juices, jam, and yolk. A tangy sliced and seeded rye as big as a six-month-old baby promises a week's worth of sandwiches.

For the Bread Project's nine-week cafe/restaurant-training program and its twelve-week bakery-training program, students are actively recruited from more than 200 local homeless shelters, halfway houses, substance-abuse recovery houses, jails, and prisons — including San Quentin — and other social-service agencies, according to executive director Dagmar Schroeder-Huse.

"Potential students go through a very involved intake process before they are accepted into the programs," she said. "During the screening interviews, our program staff discusses the history of each student as well as their barriers to employment intensively to understand the various challenges each student faces. This is important to apply individualized tactics to overcome their barriers and to find suitable employment once they finish the training.

"Students earn a certificate of completion if they attend at least 330 out of the 360 total hours of instruction and pass most of the required written and practical tests that are given throughout the training," Schroder-Huse explained. "We strictly enforce regular attendance to mimic on-the-job expectations." The outcomes are inspiring: an 86-percent graduation rate, 74-percent job-placement rate, and 83-percent job-retention rate.

As a Bay Area-based culinary school, the Bread Project covers more than just snickerdoodles. Based on a multicultural repertoire of recipes developed by a team of executive and pastry chefs, the students learn not only to handcraft artisanal breads from scratch, using no artificial ingredients, but also to make many kinds of cakes, cookies, crostini, croutons, quiches, muffins, cinnamon rolls, scones, soufflés, casseroles, soups, sandwiches, fajitas, tacos, hot pockets, tartlets, marinated meats, pasta, potato dishes, roasted vegetables, and much more, including salads with balsamic-vinegar, lime-cilantro, and lemon-basil dressings.

To help keep the project sustainable, these items reach a hungry public via the cafe, which opened four years ago, and through the Bread Project's catering branch, wholesale bakery operation, and partnerships with school districts, farmers' markets, Project Open Hand, and other agencies.

Six tiny tables-for-two and two student-style refectory tables occupy the southernmost edge of the Berkeley Adult School's multipurpose room; an empty floor sprawls what seems like miles to a curtained stage. On one visit, we settled in with chewy cookies and cups of Mr. Espresso. As a public service, personnel from the Oakland-based coffee company regularly train Bread Project Café workers in barista skills.

Our server, Pat Van Valkenburgh, entered the training program after her husband became unemployed. Formerly a stay-at-home mom, "I asked myself what I liked best, and that was cooking," she said. Working part-time at the cafe now allows her family to keep their home and health-care coverage. It also gives her an opportunity to learn the histories of the items she serves — such as sultana-and-coconut-studded Anzac cookies, first savored by New Zealand soldiers during World War I.

An old adage asserts: "Give a man a fish and he'll eat today. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." By teaching self-sufficiency along with how to sift flour, the Bread Project takes that adage to heart. Give people loaves of bread and they'll eat today. Teach them to bake, and ....

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