Chef Eugenia Theodosopoulos, known as Chef Theo and the owner of Essence Bakery Cafe, is a Paris-trained baker. Essence opened in 2007, first in Tempe, then in Phoenix, then Tempe closed in 2017. Prior to that, Essence Catering has been around since 1994. Theodosopoulos is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier and the James Beard Foundation. She also serves on the board of the Scottsdale Community College and Rio Salado College culinary programs and is a judge for Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) competitions.
Theodosopoulos recently started Arizona’s first-ever baking apprenticeship in partnership with C-CAP Arizona — an internationally recognized two-year program. Founded by Richard Grausman and co-chaired by Marcus Samuelsson, C-CAP offers 15,000 students across the nation a chance to develop their interest in the culinary and hospitality fields. The program offers graduating high school students the opportunity to advance their culinary skills in a working environment.
One hundred and fifty high schools offer a culinary program, but Arizona has the biggest and the only statewide one. “We have to, because hospitality is a huge industry in Arizona,” Theodosopoulos says. "All parts of it are equally important: front, back, dishwashing, food, pastry, all of it. When one part doesn't work, you need others to pitch in.” Through C-CAP, students have a chance to be exposed to different parts of the business and choose specific areas of interest.
“Culinary school is expensive,” Theodosopoulos continues. “It is $60,000 a year. Most people can’t afford it. They want to start working right away. With the C-CAP apprenticeship program, the kids graduate from high school culinary and start working immediately.”
Theodosopoulos currently has two people who want to go into baking, another who graduated from culinary school and wants to do management, and a fourth who is interested in learning front of house. With her program, they have a chance at a hands-on experience early on.
“You start working straight away ... you are making money. Then you can supplement with programs, maybe online,” she says. “Plus, if this is not something you want to do, you still have a skill to fall back on and are not in debt.”
So what made Chef Theo personally interested in participating? She loves teaching and now gets to do it every day.
“It’s amazing when someone wants to learn, how fast they learn. The girls in the kitchen have been here since June and already know how to make croissants and macarons and cookies," she says. "It takes discipline. They show up every morning at 3:30 to 4 a.m., which is half the battle. The reason I got involved is that I want to help kids, and I know that debt is a major issue.”
She's already talking about opening a cooking school.
Her C-CAP program is 4,000 hours. The students mostly work 40 hours a week. In those hours, they learn how to make croissants, cookies, macarons, breads, and creams. At this time, she takes four students. They start upon graduation or when the school year's over and stay for two years. She even has one student still in high school who works weekends.
This works because Theodosopoulos is a multitasker. While speaking with Phoenix New Times, she stops to greet people entering the bakery. It’s not just a simple good morning, either. She actually knows them. “I read your article, Frank.” Or, “How are you, Gloria?”
The same attitude permeates the the kitchen. As she gives a tour, she introduces all the employees. Past the line, there are two rooms — one with three ovens, the other where pastries and cookies are prepared. Three young women are working in the baking area.
Denise Garcia, 24, works on macarons.
She completed culinary school and studies hospitality. “Because I had done competitions, I felt comfortable with speed and efficiency,” Garcia says. “But this was my first time doing pastry. Chef Theo thinks I was calm when I started, but in my mind, I was freaking out.”
Garcia goes on to explain working with Theodosopoulos. “She’s patient with everybody and knows your limits and strengths. Even when I don't know if I can, she says, 'Yes you can,' then leaves the room. Somehow, I find myself doing the assigned task.” Garcia says she's comfortable with challenging bakes, even patiently guides the other young bakers.
“It’s a family atmosphere here,” says one of the girls, smiling. The others concur.
Garcia, now a skilled baker, would not be acting the same if she weren't at Essence. “It’s very different with men. I used to work at a restaurant where I was hired to cook. But I wouldn’t get the opportunity to do it," she says. "I’d usually end up cleaning filters, which would make the boss mad because I wasn’t cooking. It was a vicious cycle.”
Charlize Cipres, 18, did three competitions: Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA); one for the National Dairy Council; and C-CAP. She says she really wanted to win a scholarship for baking and pastry, because she's always loved desserts.
“After the competitions, I received a $5,000 scholarship to Scottsdale Community College. Then, from the Dairy Council, I got second place and this internship,” Cipres says. “I’ve been here for four months and have already learned how to make the dough, rolls, croissants, and Kouign Amann."
And if that doesn't sound complicated, be prepared to eat your words, like so many delicious pastries. "Baking is very, very precise. The temperature of the room, the temperatures of the dough and butter all affect the final product," she says.
Cipres echoes Garcia on Essence's atmosphere.
"This environment is very different than where I worked before. I was the only woman in a kitchen full of men and I was the only one who cleaned the kitchen. I even took the time to deep-clean," she says. "Here, cleaning is part of the daily routine and we deep-clean once a month. Look at these refrigerators and ovens. They look brand-new because of the care that goes into them. I love it here and don’t regret making this decision for one second.”
Valerie Moreno, 18, is petite but exudes confidence. “I’ve been here since 4 a.m.,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do baking. One of my teachers warned me about the work and hours. It didn’t matter. This is what I want to do. If you have any questions about any of the bakes, let me know.”
Their excitement is infectious. These young women know what they want and are given the opportunity to blossom. Yes, they clean here, too, but cleaning is only part of the job, not all of it.
What Theodosopoulos is giving these students is beyond mere baking skills. It's clear she's a mentor who instills confidence and fosters independence in young women.
According to Jill Smith, the C-CAP program director, the school supports students through SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to help them have smooth transitions during the apprenticeship.
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And it's starting a trend. A number of other chefs are interested in participating in the apprenticeship program as well. Among those are Rebecca Tillman from The Phoenician, Christopher Gross from Wrigley Mansion, Mark Tarbell from Tarbell’s, Brady Bryner from J.W. Marriott at Desert Ridge, Beau Macmillan from Elements, and Andrew Helmandollar from Casino Arizona.
The school is also looking for possible chefs outside of metro Phoenix. Yes, they're going statewide. By the end of this year, C-CAP Arizona hopes to place 25 students.
Of the experience, one of the young bakers, Cipres, has a simple send-off: "I love it," she says, "and I love Chef Theo."