Production Chef Julio Armenta has been baking at San Diego State University since 1997. He says the best part of his job and the most challenging part are one and the same.
“I love the idea of constant change in menus and concepts because I feel that if you don't constantly change and challenge yourself, you become stale and soon can become obsolete,” Armenta says.
Becoming obsolete doesn't seem to be a possibility for the SDSU Bake Shop, seeing as how indispensable it has become to many locations on campus. The 25 employees at the bake shop, overseen by SDSU Dining Services Executive Chef David McHugh, provide the two dining halls and three Starbucks locations on campus with morning pastries (muffins, croissants, danishes), and much more.
When specialty or custom products are desired, “they rise to the occasion with hundreds of new product samples every year,” McHugh adds.
The bake shop, which bakes from scratch wherever possible, also turns out an impressive array of desserts and breads for the dining halls. Cheesecakes, butterscotch brownies, raspberry and apricot bars, lemon-raspberry mousse, flan and German chocolate cake are a few that regularly tempt the University's community every day. On average, the shop produces 400 fruit cups/parfaits, 400 foot-long sub breads, 500 of the morning pastries, 125 pizza doughs, and anywhere from six to 12 sheets of any dessert item every day (these numbers don't include the catered events the bake shop participates in).
Of the desserts, “without a doubt,” the cheesecake is the most popular item, Armenta says, adding that the bake shop worked to adjust the recipe until it became a real crowd pleaser.
One of the most original cookies is the bake shop's fortune cookies, which range from the traditional pocket size to a whimsical huge fortune cookie. Cookies provide a good blank slate for the imagination, Armenta says.
“We produce custom cookies with logos for the student body and our alumni center, which hosts and caters to executives and donors,” Armenta says. “We produce Mexican wedding cookies (a ball-shaped, melt-in-your-mouth cookie with finely chopped almonds, pecans or hazelnuts, rolled in confectioners' sugar), chocolate macaroons, Florentine cookies dipped in chocolate and cookie bouquets.”
For special dates on the calendar, like Mardi Gras, the bake shop makes the classic-decadent dessert Bananas Foster and the iconic King Cake. There is a Bailey's crème brulee for St. Patty's day and fresh bunuelos for Cinco de Mayo. (Bunuelos are thin, fried Mexican pastries sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar). Halloween brings black cat, Frankenstein's Monster, mummy and ghoul-faced cupcakes.
Although sweets are obviously a big part of the bake shop, Armenta gets the most satisfaction from baking bread.
“I'm a bread baker at heart,” he says. “I think of it as a science experiment…You add yeast, salt, sugar and flour — all the right elements — and you get a reaction. I enjoy braiding bread to form rings as well as baking at high temperatures and steaming artisan breads and sourdoughs. There's something about high temperatures and steam that is very caveman!”
The bake shop, around 2,000 sq. ft., and located at the west end of the SDSU campus, has all the right equipment to allow the bakers' artistic abilty to shine. Armento says that if the bake shop were to suddenly catch fire and only three pieces of equipment could be saved, he would pick the mixer, the large sheeter, and the proof box/refrigerator.
As a leader, Armenta says the most important thing he enforces is cross training. “Every semester, I like to change employees' tasks and assignments so that every employee gets a better sense of the big picture. I don't like employees settling into a routine. Routines promote complacency and mediocrity. We want to strive, make changes and excel at everything we do. By changing duties, it promotes employees' eagerness to learn and fresh ideas.”