By Ulya Aligulova
Katherine Slevin knew she was going to be a pastry chef as soon as she received her first Easy-Bake Oven as a child. “I’ve always been obsessed with pastry and baking. It was a passion of mine. And I eventually made a career of it,” Slevin said. In fact, now she is the proud owner of C. Love Cookie Project, a Portland-based company established in 2017 with the goal of connecting Portland-area communities and aiding the immigrant population that now calls the city their home. The company donates 21% of total cookie sales to three local non-profit organizations that work with immigrant communities in Portland.
Slevin has trained in pastry and has been in the industry for many years, working in restaurants, hotels, and bakeries in the U.S., as well as in France on two different occasions. When she first moved to Portland for a job, she didn’t know anyone or anything about the area. Having been raised in a Christian household in Illinois, she was persuaded by her sister to join a Bible study group in order to meet people. Slevin ended up befriending a woman in the circle who had previously worked with refugees in Lebanon and Syria. “It was the peak of the refugee crisis in 2016 and I had this urgent feeling that I needed to do something more to help,” she noted.
Starting in May 2021, Slevin is launching a new project called C. Love Baking Academy. The three-month baking course will teach immigrant women skills needed to thrive in a professional pastry kitchen. “Before COVID, I had worked with Opportunity Alliance doing monthly baking classes with single immigrant mothers and their families, and I loved it. Sometimes we’d have the same families coming back, and I really loved having that connection,” Slevin reflected. “Having all this experience working in the industry and being so passionate about baking, I felt like I really wanted to pass on my knowledge, so it was an organic development to establish the Baking Academy.”
The idea of holding baking classes first came to Slevin back when she was volunteering in Lesbos. “The last month we spent in Lesbos, we had moved to this sort of community center. It was geared towards families so a lot of women would gather there because they had tea and laundry facilities,” she recalled. “The women often sat around kind of shyly, and I remember often thinking how great it would be to have baking classes to encourage these women to engage and be successful.”
During quarantine, Slevin took time off from making cookies for C. Love Cookie Project to concentrate on getting ready to launch the Baking Academy. Since December, she’s stopped all production and focused on getting the recipes set, the instructors trained, and the logistical issues for the academy sorted out. “All along I’ve noticed that women, in particular those who are new to this country, are still being marginalized,” Slevin pointed out. “They either don’t know how to get connected or feel that they need to stay within the home. This academy is my way of saying, ‘Hey, you’re welcome here. We love you. And we want to see you succeed in the U.S.’ ”
Slevin explained that she doesn’t only want to pass on the technical baking skills. “There’s something so special about learning another language, another culture, and getting to know people who are seemingly very different from you. Whether you’re a U.S. citizen since birth or you’re new to this country, I think there’s a lack of connection between people and a lack of understanding of what a community is,” she said. “The kitchen is a naturally welcoming place, a place where these women can create long-lasting relationships with each other. That’s been the biggest joy of C. Love for me, the relationships I made along the way.”
Besides preparing for the launch of the Baking Academy, Slevin is also working on establishing a brick-and-mortar store in the near future. Additionally, she is thinking of the possibilities of expanding the C. Love Cookie Project to different cities. “I think C. Love is a pretty replicable model. I have been looking at other cities that have a strong immigrant population. I’d like to see C. Love in other places,” she said. “There’s so much change that needs to still happen in the world. And although it may seem small or silly, pastry is my way of contributing to that change.”
The C. Love Baking Academy will kick off in May 2021 and run for three months, with classes every Monday and Tuesday from 9 a.m.to 4 p.m. The program will take place at a commercial kitchen on Washington Avenue in Portland and is open to all immigrant women, regardless of their previous cooking or baking experience or English-language level. The program costs $300, in total, but scholarships are available. Applications can be submitted on the C. Love Cookie Project website at https://www.clovecookieproject.com/apply.