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Pastry chef bakes up comfort sweets

kayla Byler

Steam billows out of dishwashers. Trays of cookies emit their delicious smell as they cool. Pots and pans bang as they’re moved about the kitchen, and students and bakers mix up recipes.

This is Kate Koren’s workplace. Koren is Ohio State’s pastry chef and works in the bake shop in the back of Raney Commons on Curl Drive.

“This isn’t your typical desk job,” Koren said, pointing out her “filing cabinet,” a cooling rack stacked high with cooking utensils, boxes and other objects.

With a bachelor’s degree in baking and pastries, Koren is a professionally trained pastry chef. Heading a fleet of six students which produces more than 800 muffins, 200 cookies and other pastry products daily that add up to more than 9,000 pastries a week, her training comes in handy.

“You picture your mom, (a) homey kind of thing, just making some cookies,” Koren said. “It’s actually a real thing.”

Being efficient, baking mass amounts of muffins, cutting in straight lines and counting by 12s are a few skills Koren’s student-assistants take away from the job.

“I mostly baked cookies at Christmas time and stuff, but I never knew how to … do things without a recipe,” said Christine Crews, a third-year in biology and one of Koren’s assistants.

Koren said she invents most of the recipes for the pastries with homesick students in mind.

“When I’m developing recipes and concepts and things, I think about what I want,” she said. “What would I want to eat? What would make me feel at home?”

But some of her recipes, such as the monster cookie’s, are borrowed.

“Most of (the recipes) actually are from my childhood, from my grandmother’s recipes,” Koren said.

Koren and her crew make about 70 percent of its product from scratch, but she said she’s trying for 100 percent.

“We’re hungry for more,” Koren said. “I like to strive for quality over quantity, as it always should be, because I feel that’s most important to the customer.”

Despite Koren’s yearning for a larger space, the bakery she says is too small for her operations has come a long way since she was hired.

When Koren started in 2007, the Raney bake shop served only the Campus Grind at Drinko (Lou’s Cafe), McPherson Lab and VetMed. Now, it also serves Berry Cafe, KSA Cafe, Terra Byte Cafe and The Caffeine Element. Koren said when she started, they made only about 84 muffins a day.

Koren also bakes the pastries for University Catering. The off-premises catering business will deliver to a minimum of eight people to anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people, Koren said.

The six students who work for Koren were not around at the beginning of her time at OSU, either. Finding students that are willing to come into work at about 5 a.m. can be a struggle, Koren said, but she loves giving the students experience in something they aren’t going to school for.

“They’re tremendous,” Koren said. “At first, some of them didn’t know how to bake anything — they just had an interest — and now they’re just, like, baking fools.”

But Audrey Barnes, a second-year in anthropology and one of Koren’s assistants, knew a little about baking when she took the job.

“Before I knew I wanted to do anthropology, I actually wanted to be a pastry chef,” Barnes said. “I’ve wanted this job since I was in high school.”

Barnes said getting up early and coming to work was great experience, especially because most of the work is in production.

“We tray (the cookies) up so they’re frozen, and we can just cook them in the morning,” Barnes said, as she cracked 64 eggs into a giant mixing bowl of snickerdoodle cookie dough.

Koren said muffin bakers make muffins the afternoon before the muffins go out because of the large daily quantities the bake shop produces.

“Everything else is baked off first thing in the morning when I come in,” said Koren, who usually gets to work at about 4:30 a.m.

Mark Newton, executive chef and associate director of Campus Dining Services Administration, said because of the shear quantity, not every muffin on campus is produced in Raney Commons. But he has big plans for the bake shop that started so small.

“My ultimate goal is to get a fresh bread community on campus,” Newton said. “About five years ago we wanted to start producing in house. … We knew we’d have to start small.”

Expansion is often on his mind, he said.

“It’s a challenge with the amount of space (Koren) has,” Newton said. “Typically, bake shops are much larger.”

The kitchen in Raney Commons is divided almost in half. Koren manages the bakery on one half, and chefs roam the other.

Randy Richards, a banquet prep cook who works on the other side of the kitchen as Koren but often crosses her path, said there is a key to working in such tight quarters.

“It’s pretty much communication,” he said.

Koren said bridging the gap between the different departments is one of the hardest parts of her job but that it also keeps it exciting.

“It’s fun to come up with stuff,” Koren said. “There’s always something new every day. It’s not just the same, old grind.” 

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