Posted on Wed, 11/08/2017 - 1:18pm
An Interview With Nina Plasencia
By Kelly Zelna, Zingerman’s Bakehouse
Meet Nina, long time leader at Zingerman’s Bakehouse. February will be her 15th anniversary working here! She has played a variety of roles during her time at the Bakehouse, from a bagel baker, to a pastry maker and on to her current job. Nina’s road to Zingerman’s began in high school at her job at a grocery store. Looking for an opportunity to make more money she started working part time in a bakery as well. “It was a small bakery, the owners and the owners’ sister baked, and then myself. They trained me to do a lot of things. It was work that was really easy for me to do, because I was organized and detail oriented, and I’m really good with numbers. So the planning and the executing was really easy, and I liked creating things, using my hands and being up on my feet, so I really enjoyed working there. When I left I did some accounting work, and other office work, and I really missed the physical aspect of the job, and I missed making things, and the joy of baking. When you do accounting it’s fine, and I still really love numbers but nobody is really excited that you crunched that number. But when you bake something and specifically pastries, it’s a treat, and they really like it and it brings them joy and then that brought me more joy. So that’s when I decided I wanted to go back into baking, so I sought out Zingermans, because we had such a great reputation in baking. I had been to Zingerman’s Deli and I enjoyed their food, so I started pursuing a job here.”
Knowing Zingerman’s reputation, Nina knew that this was the place she wanted to be, “Once I got here I knew it was the right fit. I enjoyed the culture and that I was recognized for my work. I was able to move up. I’ve never thought about leaving, I’ve never considered oh maybe there’s a better bakery for me. Once I was here I knew it was the right spot. It kind of encompassed sort of everything I was looking for in a job.”
Let me explain Nina’s role here is now. As Nina puts it she “Manages projects rather than people” which is very different from her former role as pastry kitchen manager. She works as part of our administration team working out things like large scale policy changes, our staff training passports, and making sure that all our departments have some opportunities to have a little fun while we’re at work. Which we all appreciate! The most exciting part of her job for Nina, probably for any Zingerman’s food lover, is her work on product development! When we choose to make a new pastry, Nina works with Amy and Frank (bakehouse owners) and the pastry team to develop. This takes many iterations and Nina does the leg work on the recipe until we get it just where we want it. This past year she worked on many new items, but only a couple were good enough to make the cut: chocolate babka (available now), tahini banana bread and tahini croissants (both coming in January 2018). Nina worked on two new desserts for Zingerman’s Delicatessen’s 2017 Paella Parties, and is working on some top secret desserts for Miss Kim, the Zingerman’s Korean restaurant.
One of Nina’s favorite opportunities here was a once-in-a-lifetime trip where she got to eat her way across Hungary in preparation for creating new Hungarian foods at the Bakehouse. “One of the most fun parts of working here for me was when I went to Hungary. There were 8 of us and it was the perfect working vacation, our itinerary was planned out by our meals! We would have breakfast and then go to pastry shops, and then we would have lunch and then some more pastries or go to coffeehouses. It was just the weirdest thing to never be hungry, we’d show up to dinner and none of us were hungry and none of us really wanted to eat again but we would order all of this stuff to try. The Hungarian food that came out of our trips there is really great and something to be proud of. Not many places in the US are making them. It is something really special and unique. It was really special to be a part of that trip, and the experiences we shared together were a lot of fun!”
During my talk with Nina I asked her a really tough question for a Zingerman’s 15 year veteran, “What are you most proud of from your time working here?” After some time going over all the positions and opportunities she’s had she was able to narrow it down for me. “In all of my time here I’m most proud of the work I did in the pastry kitchen. I’m really proud of the pastry kitchen and what it’s become, how great we are at making so many different things. To make a coffeecake versus making a croissant are night and day different processes and we do them both every day 363 days a year really really well. We do some pretty intense quantities sometimes too. We have all worked together to make something great.”
Nina also has an essay included in our Zingerman’s Bakehouse Cookbook! “I’m thrilled about an article I wrote that’s in the new book. I’m super proud of Frank and Amy for that huge accomplishment and I think that it’s really special for anyone that’s ever worked here to have this book out there, because I do feel like it emcompasses what it feels like to work here. I’m really happy to have a part of my views of the bakehouse in there.” Her piece in the book is all about the daily tastings that our bakers, decorators, and cooks are trained to do everyday. Be sure to check out Nina’s contribution to the book (Pg. 50)!
Part of Nina’s tasting talents comes from her love for her favorite Bakehouse chocolate treats in a variety of forms. “Like many people that work here my favorite foods here are not finished foods, so they’re a version of it, or that food in the raw form. So my hands down favorite thing to eat is the brownie batter, it tastes like brownie ice cream and it’s delicious!” Eating raw batter is enjoyable to Nina but it also has a function. “I will say that the few times that I have remedied something missing from the batter has come from the many times I have tasted the batter raw. I can tell it's off and we’re able to fix it and not lose a batch!” Can you imagine getting to taste all of our brownie batters as part of your job?! It sound’s amazing to me and I work here!
I’m not an Ann Arbor native, actually I’m not even close to a native. I’m from Central Florida. I grew up hearing about Ann Arbor over the years from my best friend’s Dad who went to University of Michigan. Over the years he mentioned the most amazing sandwich shop ever, which you guessed it, was Zingerman’s Deli. That was my only knowledge of Zingerman’s. Fast forward to my move to Michigan and getting a job here at the Bakehouse, it shouldn’t still surprise me the way that every Zingerman’s employee talks about their jobs, and their love of Zingerman’s culture, but it still does. There’s something really special about this group of food loving people, and Nina is no exception!
She had nothing but great things to say about Zingerman’s, her time here, and of course the always inspiring Frank and Amy (Bakehouse co-owners). “ What I like most about working here is the people, I love the food, I love Ann Arbor, I love the dynamic of Zingerman’s in that we’re a community of businesses that support each other. But honestly what keeps me coming back are the people that work at the Bakehouse. I’ve always admired Frank and Amy, and how they manage the business, and how they manage people. It’s never been a cold business, it's never been only about the food or only the profits, it’s been about the people that work here, and developing great relationships with people. I love all the people that work here, there are tons of people that have worked here as long or longer than I have an having these work relationships that really feel like friendships that have endured for over 10 years. With the people that come and go it’s really exciting to see that as well, lots of people come in with enthusiasm, or come in without knowing how to bake at all, or they take a job over the summer in high school and then they develop a passion for baking and it’s really exciting. Helping people develop their skills, or their ability to plan a day or organize numbers, or whatever it is, the people are what make the job really great.”
More getting to know Nina:
Where are you from?
“I was born and raised in River Rouge, which is down river, then I moved to Pinkney which is about 35 minutes away from ann arbor, it’s a really small rural town. When I was in high school if we went somewhere it was to Ann Arbor, so I spent a lot of time here and I sort of call it my second home for many years. Now I prefer Dexter, because it's a little less busy ever since I had kids, besides from working here we only come here for the great food Ann Arbor has to offer. I have a dog she’s a golden doodle and she is equally as energetic as my children are, so that's exciting. We enjoy camping, I like to spend as much time as possible at the beach because my kids love water”
What do you do when you’re not at work?
So when I’m not at work I’m with my family. I have two children. I like to spend a lot of time with them, we like to go places and do fun things, I like to be involved with their school and the community as well. I’m either spending time with my immediate family or my extended family, all of my brothers but one live in the area, my parents and my inlaws live like 20 minutes from my house, I’m very family oriented. My youngest daughter, just started kindergarten so I’m sort of entering a new stage where I have more time than I did previously.