By Dr. Michelle Lee
Dr. Lee’s article appears in episode 27 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
A year ago, I was a young doctor working in the COVID intensive care unit in New York City at the height of the pandemic. My fellow healthcare workers and I worked around the clock, managing electrolytes, crashing patients, and difficult family calls. Luckily we had an outpouring of support from local New Yorkers, many of whom donated meals to nourish us through the marathon.
I was a food writer on the side throughout medical school and a foodie. As a way to take my mind off the pandemic when I wasn’t on the unit, I helped facilitate over 1,000 meal donations from local New York area businesses to Mount Sinai Hospital healthcare workers.
I turned 30-years-old in the COVID unit, and what otherwise would have been a depressing Saturday shift, was sweetened by a surprise birthday cupcake delivery by Chef Fresh at Fresh Taste Bakery.
Chef Fresh hand-delivered his Rose Gold Monogram “30” cake made with French Vanilla cupcakes. I shared amongst my fellow doctors and nurses, who were also on the weekend shift with me. I could see their smiles light up their faces as they bit into his delicious cupcakes. Many of us were tired and socially isolated from our families (mine included) for their safety, and the hospital was the only source of social interaction we had. Although we were wearing our protective equipment and spaced apart from each other, it felt nice to have us come together and cupcakes were a wonderful way for us to regain a sense of normalcy. I felt happy and touched by Chef Fresh and local New Yorkers’ kindness. Even if I was in the midst of a pandemic away from my family and knee-deep in heart-wrenching clinical work, I felt cared for by my city, my home, my New York in that moment.
Even if I was in the midst of a pandemic away from my family and knee-deep in heart-wrenching clinical work, I felt cared for by my city, my home, my New York in that moment.
I found the birthday cupcakes had been donated by Gaby Armour and other kind New Yorkers who had helped procure meals to raise morale of healthcare workers on the frontlines.
I learned more about Chef Fresh, whose real name is Antwoin Gutierrez. He is a native New Yorker who left prison ten years ago at the age of 25. He found his passion for baking through a second-chance program, The Doe Fund, that offered training through the New York City pastry/culinary industry. Despite having no formal culinary/pastry degree, he was able to leverage his love for baking and entrepreneurial spirit into a successful virtual bakery over the last several years despite the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, Gutierrez worked with organizations to brighten healthcare workers’ days as a way to give back to the city that gave him a second chance.
Interview of Chef Gutierrez, as told to Michelle Lee, MD
Culinary arts literally saved my life.
I grew up in an environment outside New York City with little opportunity. Since the age of 7, I was always that kid raking leaves and shoveling snow, looking for a way to make money. I grew up in a broken family, moved in and out of group homes, got caught up in a gang.
My dad left the country at 16 years old to avoid his own troubles with the law. At 16 years old, I witnessed someone getting shot, and I went back to New York. A year later I had my first arrest between ages 18-19 and went back to jail between ages 20-21. I met my son for the first time on a visiting floor in a jail and that was the moment I knew I needed to change. Prison was terrible, the despair and loneliness from missing my family.
I was 24 years old in 2011 when I got out of prison. The Doe Fund was my opportunity.
The people from “Ready, Willing and Able” provided a way to get a job, career, and an apartment. I never had a formal culinary education. But I had a natural entrepreneurial drive and experience from the streets that taught me well in the kitchen.
I thought I’d move Snapple and drive vans, but they put me in the kitchen.
I’ll never forget the day Chef Kenny Smith and Chef Gino Saldrandro brought me into the kitchen and taught me how to bake.That day was April 12, 2012. That magical day, my life and time came. Those chefs planted those seeds and pretty soon, I couldn’t be dragged out of the kitchen. I started learning how to make vanilla buttercream, yeast fermentation, chocolate chip banana bread, coffee cake. I learned how to create a prominent resume working for five years in restaurants around New York City including Rockefeller Center and Gramercy Park Hotel prior to starting Fresh Taste Bakery.
I started learning how to make vanilla buttercream, yeast fermentation, chocolate chip banana bread, coffee cake.
We grew through word of mouth and online through Yelp, Instagram, website, and google searches.
We make specialty cupcakes like Hennessey-infused cupcakes for New Year’s, and the carrot cake cookie is always a best-seller. We also make custom birthday cakes that can be gluten free and vegan. I learned how to create a brand for myself and an online bakery platform that eventually became successful. I credit Defy Ventures, a New York entrepreneurial and leadership program, for molding me into a business owner. My business now supports me, my family, including my son and daughter.
“Opportunity” was something I was waiting for my entire life. The look on my customer’s faces when they bite into my carrot cake cookie or specialty cupcakes is still something I live for everyday.
The funny thing is that I was able to pick up things very well because baking is not too different from my past drug operation. All the ingredients for both are measured in ounces, grams, and pounds. Understanding the different reactions that ingredients had when processed was somewhat familiar. Instead of flipping narcotics, I now flipped butter, sugar and flour. Both processes involve packaging, networking, customer service, and commercializing. Even in the drug world, we prize ingredients, consistency, and having the highest quality goods. It takes a lot of persistence and patience to get to that level of figuring what works.
Instead of flipping narcotics, I now flipped butter, sugar and flour.
I believe I had the talent but no outlet. More than ten years ago, I never imagined that I would be out of prison for more than six months. My biggest goal back then was just to make it home.
I had a 5-year parole and I had never known anyone who had that long of a parole without getting into trouble. I knew a slip on a banana peel would have landed me back, and I’m still amazed that I was able to break out of the system.
The same week I got parole, I became self-employed. I started as a small start-up in Harlem. Celebrity DJ Khaled posted about my cupcakes, and I started to get involved in corporate catering and baked for a NFL alumni brunch. I was supposed to go on a three-city baking tour of NYC, DC, and Atlanta until COVID hit.
Prior to the pandemic, my target demographics were nightlife and corporate catering. But then the buildings shut down and all the office workers started working from home. I had to figure out how to survive.
The lines around the grocery store would be so long, I was making sure I had double the ingredients and that I didn’t run out. Luckily as a virtual bakery already, I was able to keep overhead low. We never had a brick and mortar store and delivered to all five boroughs successfully for years. Ironically, many other businesses ended up picking up this business model during COVID. I think making sure that you’re prepared, and making sure you have resources and having faith in people rather than fear is important.
I had a friend at New York Presbyterian-Brooklyn who raised $1,000 from across the country to donate to frontline workers, and I matched half. I started with a few dozen cupcakes, and other hospitals reached out. I eventually ended up baking over 400 cupcakes for New York City healthcare workers. We dropped off cupcakes to New York Presbyterian-Allen Hospital, New York Presbyterian-Cornell hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital, and New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan. It felt good to give back because healthcare workers are the ones really putting their lives at risk.
I think making sure that you’re prepared, and making sure you have resources and having faith in people rather than fear is important.
Giving back is very important to me because I feel blessed with an opportunity that elevated me to a point where I want to give back to people who grew up in the same environment. I’ve talked to elementary school students and incarcerated individuals at Rikers. I’d love to knock down doors and excuses and tell these people in tough situations that there is no limit in life. The hustler spirit got me through the pandemic and it speaks back to that 7-year-old kid in me who would always shovel snow and rake leaves. I want to tell my younger self, “You got talent young boy and you’re a king. The world is bigger than it seems, and you have to go and get those opportunities.” I thank all those social workers, teachers, programs, chefs throughout New York who made it possible for me.
I want to tell my younger self, “You got talent young boy and you’re a king. The world is bigger than it seems, and you have to go and get those opportunities.”
Being an entrepreneur is always busy, and there’s always a hundred things to do, even now.
But I have a good group of people around me. I believe if you put positive energy out, you’ll always get positive energy back. Giving back is very important to me.
The pandemic brings out the power of the pivot. You can’t be too invested or set in your ways. The only way to survive the pandemic is to keep eyes and mind open. This is not the time to be fearful. I try different things and figure what works for me, and always looking at what the game is missing. It’s still a beautiful thing to be able to continue creating and making revenue from takeout, and making that a permanent part of your business. I believe in always being social and not competing with others, just creating and letting your product speak for yourself. People have to eat. People are still here and celebrating, and there’s still opportunity.
People have to eat. People are still here and celebrating, and there’s still opportunity.
Being an entrepreneur is always busy, and there’s always a hundred things to do even now. But I have a good group of people around me. I believe if you have positive energy out and you always get positive energy back. It’s not just about baking but creating experiences for other people.
About the Author
Dr. Michelle Lee is a NYC-based writer, community activist and resident physician. Her writing has been published in New York Magazine, Stat News, Salon, Eater, Infatuation, Civil Eats, and Life & Thyme. You can find Dr. Lee on Twitter and Instagram.