Southern Makers

Kuluntu Bakery Bakes Barriers | Listen

By building a sense of community, one cottage bakery provides a platform for social

Nestled on the outskirts of Dallas, Kuluntu Bakery is a small-scale commercial bakery operating from Stephanie Leichtle-Chalken and her husband Warren’s home. Customers pick up orders of sourdough boules and pastries directly from the kitchen door. The menu changes weekly, with offerings inspired by South African flavors, such as an apricot, coriander, and cashew bread reminiscent of a beef sausage called boerewors.

“Some of the most exciting things happening in the pastry world aren’t happening in restaurants but are coming from the kitchens of cottage bakers,” Leichtle-Chalken says.

Baker Stephanie Leichtle Chalklen of Kuluntu Bakery | Dallas

Selling out weekly, Kuluntu’s dedication to the craft of bread and pastry has spread beyond Dallas city limits. This year they received a coveted nod from the James Beard community as a nominee for Outstanding Bakery.

Kuluntu, in the South African language of the amaXhosa people, means “community.” When Leichtle-Chalken first moved from New York City to her husband’s former home in Johannesburg, she was rescued from the confines of her sparse hotel room by a stranger practicing this active version of community, a way of caring for others that is so beautifully embedded into African culture.

“One of the hotel staff invited us to a family party. Although they had very little, they were happy to share all they had. Then they continued to care for us, even giving us dishes for our new home.”

A few years earlier, Leichtle-Chalklen was in graduate school studying nonprofit work when she began baking to alleviate school stress. She started with cupcakes and cookies and quickly moved on to sourdough. As a new career path emerged, she apprenticed in some of the top bakeries in New York City. But there, she was also introduced to the underbelly of the food industry, including the unsettling gender inequalities that plague many commercial kitchens.

When the couple moved from Johannesburg to Dallas, where Leichtle-Chalken’s family is from, she established her nonprofit Kuluntu, a bakery that aims to squash gender inequality in the culinary industry, by way of flour, water, and salt. Once Kuluntu was established in the local food community, Leichtle-Chalken began hosting forums for industry workers, offering a safe space for women to speak openly about their experiences, oftentimes addressing traumatic work environments.

Stephanie Leichtle Chalklen

This methodology is a bottom-up approach to community transformation often used in grassroots organizations and involves first listening and then creating programs in response to the most common issues uncovered. “We found that almost every woman who has spent time in the kitchen has been sexually harassed and-or bullied,” Leichtle-Chalken says. She also discovered that upward career mobility for women is slow or nonexistent, and the gender pay gap is still gaping. Combined with a lack of benefits, these conditions can stifle creativity, which is career death in an industry dependent on continuously wowing customers.

Programs are taking shape to teach women skills that will help them successfully navigate these complex issues. Leichtle-Chalken and her small team offer award-winning baking classes and custom orders all while creating nonprofit programming to empower fellow female food workers. They also aim to entice arguably the most powerful stakeholder, the customer, to understand and own their role in this broken system—a much easier feat when a delicious pastry is on the table. During pick-up days, Leichtle-Chalken opens her backyard as a gathering space for customers and the community to break bread together, while learning more about their mission and becoming inspired to take action. They share conversations that spark curiosity and ignite demand for industry transparency. And while these inequalities can feel overpowering, being woven into the fabric of our national food systems, Leichtle-Chalken and the Kuluntu Bakery team believe that change can spring forth from a community of unique individuals united, if only in the beginning, by their shared love of a crusty loaf of sourdough bread.

To learn more about Kuluntu Bakery, visit their website

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