After seven years in corporate finance in Chile, the Chilean-born Javiera Montoya decided it was time for a change. She left her job and, after taking a variety of classes to figure out her next step, fell down the rabbit hole of bread making.
At the age of 28, she and her husband, Jose, moved from Santiago to the United States, settling in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where her in-laws live. She got a degree from the International Culinary Center in New York and thought she would open a cafe, but instead opted to teach (primarily) bread baking.
In this edition of Voices in Food, Montoya talks about pivoting from the corporate world to becoming a teacher, facing some fears, and why bread making is different from other forms of cooking.
I never had any interest in cooking. But growing up, I came from a family of women who cooked and baked. They called me the one who got her hands the least dirty in the kitchen. Most everything was made from scratch and it did make me appreciate good food and the importance of not eating processed foods.
After working seven years in corporate finance for a number of companies, I got bored and started questioning my choice of careers. Chile is quite a chauvinistic country and, put that together with the chauvinism in the finance world in general, it was hard to climb the ladder. I come from a family where a number of women had their own businesses, so I had that energy in me to strike out on my own.
I luckily had a financial cushion, so I took a year to take classes to find what I was passionate about. Most of us go straight through school without really thinking if our careers are going to spark creativity. I was scared to leave my job and was fortunate to have a financial cushion. I also knew I was bored and couldn’t continue working in a cubicle.
I’ve found, both as a woman and an immigrant, that to take the initial leap of faith down a new path is hard but you do lose that fear of failing when people respond to you.Javiera Montoya
I took classes in Pilates, photography, cooking, cheese-making and baking. There was something about the science of making bread that appealed to me. You need to take so much more than the recipe into consideration — the heat, the humidity, the altitude all play a factor. I loved the difficulty of making bread and learning that if you’re baking bread and have no idea what you’re doing, you can’t fake it like you can with some other recipes.
My husband and I moved here in 2017 and settled in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where my in-laws live. Somebody I had taken classes with in Chile told me about the International Culinary Center (now part of the Institute of Culinary Education). There weren’t as many bread programs out there as there were general baking classes, often in French cuisine. I got a certificate from the 12-week program and then did an externship at Runner & Stone, a wholesale and retail bakery. It was my intention to open a bakery, but it seemed daunting when we looked at the rent, the overnight hours I’d have to work, and the inventory I’d need to sell to turn a profit.
Seeing that the art of baking bread seemed to be a lost art, I got the idea of teaching classes. Teaching had never been on my radar. I thought my accent would be detrimental, and growing up, I also hated public speaking. In school, I would pray to God that I wouldn’t be called on. My husband was the one who told me, “You can do this.”
We started looking for a studio and, in 2018, found space to rent in Lansdale. I named the studio Vituperio Artisan Breads & Studio. Vituperio is an old Chilean word which means “get-together.” I started small by offering free classes and putting up notices at the local library and YMCA. There weren’t a lot of things like this in the area, and I wasn’t sure if nobody had tried anything like this or if they had tried and failed. My husband was the assistant in every class ― he was my second pair of eyes. He still is my recipe taster and my accountant.
I dealt with my initial nervousness by approaching teaching like I had an alter ego or like I was an actor. It took a little while to get comfortable in the class — I was testing not only myself but the class structure and the students to learn what they were interested in and capable of. I quickly learned I wanted to attract a certain kind of student to my classes; I wanted there to be a certain level of seriousness in the classes. I didn’t want them to just be social experiences, but places of real learning.
I learned that by pricing the classes at a higher level, I attracted students who are interested in that detailed experience, who had been thinking of getting into learning about bread for some time. (Montoya’s in-person classes run $100 for a croissant class, $185 for a sourdough class and $250 for a master pie making class with a guest teacher.)
All the classes were in person until March 2020 and then I switched to teaching online. During the last couple of years, I also sold flour to customers, as it wasn’t available in the supermarket, and did some bread and croissant kits so families who weren’t physically together could cook together online. People told me it was a blessing and a joy to be able to be making sourdough breads during the pandemic.
Looking forward, I’d like to bring more teens into the studio to give them the skills to consider a career in this field. I’ve found, both as a woman and an immigrant, that to take the initial leap of faith down a new path is hard but you do lose that fear of failing when people respond to you. I’ve seen that I know how to start a business from scratch. People not only travel hours to take my classes, but I’ve gotten invitations to bake for farmers markets and restaurants. At the beginning, I thought it would be a negative for me to come in without a history and without anyone knowing what I did prior to this. But I saw that people did come along with me on my fresh start.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.