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UMass baker goes against the grain

It’s not every day that innovation comes in the form of raisin powder, but Pamela Adams, an assistant pastry chef at the University of Massachusetts Bakeshop, has never been one to bow to tradition.

Courtesy of UMass.edu

That’s why she opened a bakery that created American pastries in a country that had only known French baking and why she took it upon herself to overhaul the UMass Bakeshop when she was hired.

This same fire for innovation is how Adams shocked judges at the fifth annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., on Oct. 13, receiving the grand prize in the commercial category.

Growing up in Les Cayes, Haiti, far removed from the common luxuries of supermarkets, Adams and her missionary mother had to bake all of the bread their family would eat.

“We couldn’t get loaves of bread because we lived way out in the sticks, way out in the boonies,” Adams recalled.

Since she was 7, while everybody else would be napping in the heat of the Caribbean sun, Adams said she would usually be in the kitchen, tinkering with the dough and creating a lot of “disasters” along the way.

This passion stuck with her even as her father told her not to pursue a career in the culinary arts after she graduated high school. Adams attempted to silence her passion for baking by going to a standard American college and jumping from job to job with a cloud of disinterest following her.

She went from being an EMT to an athletic trainer, among other jobs.

“I spent a lot of time floating around here and there, y’know not really into anything,” she said.

In her early 30s, she traveled back to the familiarity of Haiti to live with a friend, but even her friends could sense that she was meant to be a baker.

“I was always baking, always baking cakes and this, that and the other for my friends and someone said, ‘Pam, why don’t you make a business out of it? Why don’t you start your own little bakery? You’re always making this all for free why don’t you make a living out of it?’ So I opened up my own little pastry shop out of the home that I lived,” she said.

This humble bakery – which lacked even a simple storefront – grew to sell pastries to not only many of the local supermarkets but also, as Adams called it, “the finest restaurant in all of Haiti.”

She had finally found her calling and worked herself to the bone to pursue it. With no previous background in business, Adams had to teach herself on the fly how to run her shop. This was no American bakery: Adams had to work to simply gather the ingredients for her products.

“All of my supplies I got from the local marketplace, and I’m not talking a nice marketplace like you have here, which is air-conditioned and all that. You’d trudge through the trash and the mud and the nastiness to find a little hole in the wall where they actually sold things in bulk and then I’d pay some kid to carry it back to the house for me,” she said, adding that she then took a risk and decided to specialize in making American pastries, a move that shocked many new customers.

One of her ingredient suppliers, a lady who traveled down from the mountains to bring fresh carrots, asked her one day, “Miss, what do you make with all these carrots?” Adams told her that she used the carrots to make cake. The woman replied in disbelief, saying, “What? You can’t make cake with carrots,” a reaction Adams was used to when it came to her baking in Haiti.

“It was just something that she wasn’t familiar with,” Adams said.

After running the store for a year, Adams decided to go all-in and dive into the American culinary world.

She put herself through the Connecticut Culinary Institute and went to work for both the upscale Wheatley Inn and Ritz-Carlton, whose high expectations for performance molded her into the baker that caught the eye of Ken Toong, executive director of UMass’ Auxiliary Enterprises, in 2006.

That same child who cut her teeth decades ago in her mother’s kitchen, charring loaves of French bread while the rest of her family napped, was given the offer by Toong to become the assistant pastry chef of the Dining Services Bakeshop, located in the Hampden building, as part of a team focused on changing the face of UMass Dining.

“We are so proud of chef Adams for her accomplishment and believe it is individuals like her that make UMass Amherst Dining outstanding,” Toong said in a University news release.

At the time, the face of UMass Dining was in desperate need of some cosmetic surgery, according to Adams.

“When I first joined the bakery, it was stuff slopped out of a bucket, making biscuits from a bag, muffins in the freezer for months at a time. It was gross, it was really gross,” she said. “First day at my job I looked at the freezer and said no more of this, absolutely not.”

Her first summer there she moved all of the food, which was simply stacked on palettes on the floor, onto shelving she constructed. Adams worked tirelessly to turn the Bakeshop around.

“In one day, I moved 6,000 pounds of product around,” she recalled.

Through the years, she has added the finishing touches on her smooth inventory system. Through a joint effort between her and the rest of the Bakeshop team, all of the pastries served in the dining commons are made fresh that day, and some are even family recipes.

When Adams heard about the annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest – the de facto professional baking competition in the country – she decided to enter.

Initially, Adams simply thought that it would be a “fun event” to participate in. What she didn’t know was that she would be facing the best in the baking industry while also going toe-to-toe with secret family recipes handed down for generations.

“I was up against master bakers,” Adams said. “When I first arrived at the competition, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t stand a chance.’”

However, what her competition didn’t know was that she’d baked her bread using an ingredient that, according to her, only one other company in Sweden knew how to make: raisin powder.

Like the baker version of Thomas Edison, she tinkered with countless different methods and ingredients on her own time until she ended up with the current successful form of her cinnamon swirl raisin bread.

“I’d approach the other bakers at the competition and talk to them about my raisin powder and they’d be like, ‘raisin what?’ It was unheard of. It was my ace in the hole.”

The judges hadn’t seen anything like it either – her cinnamon swirl raisin bread shocked them.

“When I compete, I always look for a different way to do things. A way that nobody else would ever think of,” she said.

Adams won the grand prize in the commercial category over 35 other skillful bakers in the competition.

Looking ahead, Adams is unsure as to what the future holds for her. Right now she’s fleshing out her hectic Bakeshop schedule with online classes in community development and permaculture, but she’s entertained thoughts about giving back to Haiti.

“One idea that’s always been in the back of my head is to go to Haiti and work with the craftsmen there to build an oven and bring it to a community that doesn’t have one,” Adams said, adding that in Haiti, an entire neighborhood shares one central oven to cook all of their food in, and many communities don’t even have one to begin with.

“But hey, maybe I’ll end up being a traveling spokesperson for raisin powder,” she said with a laugh.

Chris Kornichuk can be reached at ckronich@student.umass.edu.

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