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Bakers by the Dozen 

Wanda Cropper shepherds future bakers at Johnson & Wales

The student population of future bakers and pastry chefs is rising at Johnson & Wales University. Passersby can watch them learn the craft and view samples of their work through the windows along Trade Street. (The chocolate lab is on the corner of Cedar and Trade.) All four Johnson & Wales campuses have baking and pastry programs, but not all of the campuses have Wanda Cropper, the Charlotte-based JWU director of the International Baking & Pastry Institute (IBPI).

In January, Cropper is bringing in author Colette Peters, owner of Colette's Cakes, a specialty cake company in New York City, as JWU's distinguished visiting pastry chef. Cropper shares some qualities with fictional hat-tosser Mary Richards of the 70s Mary Tyler Moore Show: a slight, quiet demeanor with a formidable presence and "get it done" attitude. As Mary's boss Lou Grant might say, Cropper has spunk.

Her love of baking started at an early age. As a child growing up on a farm, Cropper was frequently in charge of producing the family desserts. "We always had fresh ingredients because we lived off the land, so everything was made from scratch," she says. However, she did not start off with a career in baking. First, she taught vocational home economics, then she worked with a nutrition program before returning to school to study baking at the Baltimore International Culinary College. She also earned a Certificate d'Etudes Culinaries from L'Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris. In addition, she holds a masters degree in human resources development.

I had the chance to catch up with Cropper (literally, during the Heart Walk) at the beginning of her second year in Charlotte. She stays thin by working out four times a week and taking the stairs on campus. We talked about Johnson & Wales' baking and pastry program and what it will mean to Charlotte:

CL: What can Charlotteans expect when the students graduate from the Charlotte International Baking & Pastry Institute?

Wanda Cropper: Most of the students will take jobs in bakeshops, in hotels, bakeries, and restaurants before opening their own business, because they need that experience. I hope many of them stay in Charlotte because there is a need for additional bakeries; improvement for upscale desserts on restaurant menus; for dessert & coffee cafes; and good artisan breads. "History" tells us that the J&W students and graduates made a tremendous impact on the quality of all arenas of the food service industry in Charleston.

CL: What have been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being in charge of all four JWU IBPI programs?

WC: The most challenging has been not being able to be at all places all the time. Last year was the most difficult. Because of being in a new position, I had not previously had the opportunity to get to know the entire B&P faculty on all the campuses and, of course, many of them didn't know me. When I go to the other campuses, I spend time in every instructor's class and spend one-on-one time with each of them. The rewarding aspect now is observing the relationships being formed with faculty across the campuses, through the communication of the conference calls and e-mails. I am seeing the B&P faculty university-wide becoming a "unit" all working to keep our curriculum seamless and provide great input to the curriculum.

CL: How is the job market right now for baking professionals? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?

WC: The job market now is much better now than it has been for the last two to three years, and this varies by geographical location. This has been especially true for breads, although we had the rumors that the low carb-diet craze was affecting the world of B&P. Artisan breads have been huge in the bread world. The pendulum seems to swing back and forth in the pastry industry, but I think it is becoming more stable and growing. Those of us in the baking & pastry field have a challenge in educating the palates of the consumer and, more so, the site managers to taste the difference in the "real thing" made from scratch and the box or frozen product.

CL: The hours in the baking world are legendary. Does working in the wee hours change some students' minds about which aspect of baking to pursue?

WC: I don't think this has much effect on the decision of the students. We try to prepare them for those hours. They know by the time they leave here that they will not have bankers' hours.

CL: What new gadget (or gadgets) would you recommend that the average home baker acquire or receive as a gift? What's your favorite baking tool at home?

WC: I think if you ask most of our pastry instructors this question, they will tell you that they go to Home Depot or Lowe's and find all kinds of gadgets that are wonderful, although not marketed as pastry tools. I don't have a favorite gadget, but I do love my tiny off-set spatula, my wire whisk, and my plastic bowl scraper.

CL: What/where is your favorite pastry shop? What is you favorite kind of bread?

WC: My favorite pastry shop is the bakeshops in the J&W academic building. I don't have a favorite pastry shop here, and I must admit that I don't buy many pastries because I'd rather make my own. I used to make bread a lot, but not as much any more since I moved and sold my 20-quart mixer. My favorite breads are "crusty" breads; I especially like Ciabatta and I also like multi-grain breads.

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