Sweet, sweeter, sweetest: the Bakers Guild puts undergraduate students to work in McClurg

In McClurg’s bakery, students prepare the dough for scones. Photo by Luke Gair (C’21).

By Luke Gair 
Executive Staff

Walking past the dessert cases and into the bakery feels like stepping away from one world and into another. Nestled into a kitchen corner, industrial ovens and cooking equipment line almost an entire wall. On a stormy November morning, the heat spilling from the kitchen range is pleasantly welcome. Six students work along the countertops, kneading bloated mounds of dough and quietly talking amongst themselves. This particular day, they are toiling away at personalized scone recipes: raisins and orange, parmesan and rosemary, and white chocolate with orange zest. 

“You know, it’s productive procrastination,” joked Callan Ghareeb (C’20), “I don’t feel bad about doing this because I’m contributing.” 

This semester, Chef Caroline Thompson, Chef Rick Wright, and others collaborated to start the Bakers Guild, a student-led project that teaches kitchen safety, preparedness, team building, and of course, how to make a slew of baked goods. 

While students almost always conclude meals with helpings of key lime pie or hot fudge cake, many lack an understanding about how much work goes into bringing these confections to the table. Through this initiative though, this semester’s 12 Bakers Guild members are learning the processes and skills that will transcend the kitchen and help them in the “real world.” 

“Chef Rick and I had been talking a lot about how to engage students and make them feel ownership in this space. We’re both really into that idea. You eat the things you want to eat because you’re making it,” Thompson explained, “[and] while most of you aren’t going to become bakers, it’s still a way to learn. You can learn something in a kitchen that’s applicable in so many different places.” 

Thompson emphasized that this is still very much a pilot program, but hopes that in the long run, students will “get involved in all aspects of the dining hall.” Since McClurg is already running an entire operation throughout the day, space and time stand as a significant challenge when it comes to planning. With six students behind the scenes alongside kitchen staff, it can be tricky to create what Thompson calls a “conducive work space.”

This pairing of students and hired staff also introduces an opportunity to chip away at the gap between dining workers and the greater student and faculty community. 

“I’m hoping that just being in similar space with each other and having to ask each other questions will lead to some community building too. The dining workers are awesome and they are more than their jobs. Working in a kitchen [means] you have time to get to know people in a different way,” Thompson shared. 

In terms of growth and projection, she hopes to see a shift in the leadership by next year: rather than Thompson holding the reins, it would instead be student-led. After students go through their first semester in the program, they would then teach newcomers those same techniques and recipes. Along with Thompson, McClurg staff members Leslie Parsons and Tanya Otero teach a significant part of the program. 

Thompson clarified it’s not about her teaching, but furthering the students’ education so that they can take ownership in the kitchen. 

“It’s about creating momentum where they have a little bit more autonomy. I’m not choosing the recipes and not telling them exactly what to make. Even today, I’m letting them choose what kind of scones they make. That’s the best part about cooking, it’s about making what you want. We don’t want to limit that,” she said. 

When asked whether there are any challenges that accompany this Bakers Guild, she laughed aloud. Beyond the small space and limited time, she explained that “I can be visionary and have these high expectations, and sometimes it’s hard to realize the practicality of that.” 

A student pulled the wide doors of the oven open and ever-so-quickly, the other five turned their heads in anticipation. After the scones cooled, the students held their newly baked pastries in open palms and gingerly pulled pieces off. Smiles spread across the face of each baker as they commented on texture and taste. 

“I’m not choosing the recipes and not telling them exactly what to make,” Thompson said with a smile, “that’s the best part about cooking, it’s about making what you want. We don’t want to limit that.”