Food & Drink

Program teaches special needs students the art of baking

Former Publix bakery manager Pedro Diaz holds up a cake as students Bryan Tomlinson, 26, Sophia Cruz, 21, and others clap during the adult baking and pastry arts program at the J.R.E. Lee Education Center for special needs adults.
Former Publix bakery manager Pedro Diaz holds up a cake as students Bryan Tomlinson, 26, Sophia Cruz, 21, and others clap during the adult baking and pastry arts program at the J.R.E. Lee Education Center for special needs adults. Miami Herald Staff

Donning chef jackets, toques and unrelenting smiles, the special-needs young adults gather in an industrial kitchen and begin the journey from recipe to baked treat. Under the tutelage of a gentle, third-generation baker, they mix batter, roll dough, brush frosting and slide all that goodness into the oven hour after hour.

On paper, this is a vocational program that trains adults with disabilities on how to bake pastries. But it is so much more: lessons and learning for a group that has not always seen success. About a year from now, with concepts memorized and critical life skills mastered, the students will be ready for a workplace that values their proficiency but also appreciates their differences.

An extension of the Miami-Dade County Public School system, the year-old training program at J.R.E. Lee Education Center in South Miami has a class of 20 students who are taught the industry-standard baking skills needed to work at a bakery or in a bakery environment.

“From a technical standpoint, everybody is learning a skill. But more than that, this is truly an incredible opportunity for all of our students to be able to participate in the major activity of every adult’s life, which is to go to work,” said Robin Matusow, counselor and coordinator of the baking program. “Just about every one of our students has either been unsuccessful in traditional training or unsuccessful at a job site, but not only for lack of skills, but lack of acceptance in society in general.’’

“I learned how to bake chocolate chip cookies. They are my favorite. I want to learn how to do a lot of stuff,” says Lexus Baker, 19, who hopes to one day work at a supermarket bakery. “The people here are very nice. After this, I might get a job. They want the best for us.”

Each student — part of the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation program — has a disability, intellectual or physical or both. Some happen to be autistic. Many struggle to read and write. But they all have the capacity to learn in the right setting. The students, ages 18 to 30 years old, all live in Miami-Dade, from Homestead to North Miami Beach.

“We are teaching the same skills as a standard program but in a different way, in a way that is achievable for them. The goal is for everybody to be able to go to work,” Matusow said. “We also teach them about the work culture, about job interviews, how to appropriately interact with co-workers and how to deal with their supervisors.”

Compassionate teacher

Pedro Diaz, 48, a lifelong baker whose career includes a long stint with Publix, is the teacher. He spends five hours a day, five days a week, helping the students master the art of making pastries, from cookies and cakes to tarts and madeleines.

Diaz comes from a long line of bakers in Havana, his childhood memories including sweet moments when he would sneak a taste of cake frosting made by his father. He came to Miami 35 years ago, first learning to bake as a teenager. For 18 years, he worked at Publix, where he was a baker and managed and trained bakery employees.

To teach the students recipes, Diaz developed a color system using red, white, green and yellow labels that help the students memorize the measurements. Beyond visual learning, the key is repetition; a student typically makes a baked good about six times to master the recipe. Each student also has an individual learning plan that combines soft and technical skills.

“I love baking. I love creating. I love teaching. I want to give these students an opportunity, understanding that they learn visually. I want to give them hope and light,” Diaz said. “We have students that if you put a book in front of them, they would panic. Some have a history of not doing well in school and they are afraid. You have to show them another way. But also, in every facet of their learning, you are also building their self esteem.”

“I get up early and I take two buses to get here. I love the program. It means a lot to me. Mr. Diaz taught me to bake chocolate cookies,” says Anthony Cazanove, 22. “I want to bake at a bakery and make stuff at home too.”

Several years ago, Diaz wrote a book on how to teach baking to people with learning disabilities. He showed it to Matusow, who at the time was running an adult disability program in the Miami-Dade School system.

It wasn’t the right fit at the time. Fast forward several years, and Matusow had just been given approval by the state of Florida to develop a post-secondary program for adults with disabilities. The baker with the cookbook immediately came to mind, the perfect teacher for a group that needed someone — with compassion and patience and a sensitive way — to train the students.

Next chapters

Diaz now uses his color system to teach skills from the state’s baking and pastry standard curriculum. Because the program is instructional, the baked goods cannot be sold. Instead, they are donated to the school system. Last week, the students made 200 vanilla cookies for a school board meeting.

“Mr. Diaz has a God-given gift; there is no other way to explain his teaching,” Matusow said. “He has developed a system where he can take an industrial recipe that would be taught in a standard class and he can convert into the color system that so he can teach students how to bake an incredibly complicated or and sophisticated recipe.”

The program is supported with industry partnerships including Publix, Medina Baking & Powder Products, Panque Jamaica and Swiss Chalet — among the companies that may be able to place the students or help them find jobs. Nhora De La Pava, a celebrated cake designer, serves as guest instructor.

“I love my teacher. He is teaching us how to bake and how to work with different people,” says Sophia Cruz, 21. “I learned how to make a sponge cake!”

For Cruz, the class is the foundation of her next chapter.

“Sophia has dyslexia. But here, she is learning and she looks forward to the program. I am so happy that she is in a program where she can get training for a vocation that will help her get a job,” said her father, Guillermo Cruz. “I want her to learn as much as she can. This is the beginning of her life.”

Chocolate chip COOKIES

5 cups cake flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup vegetable oil or shortening

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla

1/2 cup chocolate chips

Combine first five ingredients in a stand mixer and mix on speed No. 2 for three minutes. Slowly add chocolate chips and mix on speed No. 1 for one more minute.

Spoon dough onto baking sheets and bake at 375 degrees for eight minutes.