In sixth grade, Ali Rohrbacher won first prize at the school's science fair for her project on recycling. "I weighed each individual house's recycling for three months."
And, she says, "It was essentially a lot of math."
Math wasn't her strongpoint. "I avoided doing math for my entire academic career, even when I went to college. Then I ended up coming to find a hobby, an obsession that turned into a career, that is so math-centered. I have to do math every single day. So, it's a little ironic."
That was baking. Rohrbacher, 28, now is head baker at The cafe at Crosstown Arts.
She excelled at arts and crafts as a child growing up in Memphis. "I was much more adept — and naturally adept — at arts and literature studies."
Rohrbacher applied to art schools, but ended up going to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, an alternative education-styled public college. She got her degree in arts and literature, but she still didn't know what she wanted to do for a career.
Rohrbacher eventually moved back home and got a job doing data entry-type work and, later, she got a part-time bookkeeping job. "[I] talked my way into it, being that I went to a college and I could read. That's basically all the requirements."
In "an effort to become a healthier person," Rohrbacher began cooking. "A lot of that stress and anxiety about my future was translating into white cheddar popcorn and wine and candy and things that were not so healthy. So, in an effort to become just a functional adult that is also healthy, not eating white cheddar popcorn every day for meals, I started reading about cooking. I got a book about canning, making jams and pickles."
After she made some "incredible pickles," Rohrbacher learned how to make meatballs that rivalled the meatballs in subs she and her roommates got at a restaurant. "I was like, 'If I could figure out how to make the rolls, we would save so much money.'"
Her first bread recipe was basic. "Maybe it was even in Joy of Cooking. That's how basic of a recipe it was."
She then bought a book, Bread Revolution by Peter Reinhart, about sprouted grains and sprouted flour, and she began making sourdough bread starter from scratch. "It was no longer a pursuit of health food. It became about a pursuit of an obsessive hobby."
Rohrbacher began baking bread before work and after work. "I have a competitive personality type. I also used to run in the same kind of way. I hated running, but I would run every day because I was competing with myself from the day before. [It's] almost like I supplemented baking for running."
About a year later, Rohrbacher began giving her bread to friends. And, after she finally perfected it, she began selling it. She began Hustle & Dough Baking Co., a cottage foods operation she still runs.
While still working at her office jobs, Rohrbacher worked out a volunteer arrangement with Caritas Village. She used its kitchen on Sundays for her baking. In return, she did catering jobs, where she made pies and other items.
She also began selling her baked goods to City & State cafe. She then got a job as The Liquor Store restaurant's head baker, where she made pies, cakes, fresh biscuits, burger buns, Cuban rolls, and sandwich bread.
Last May, Rohrbacher went to work at The cafe at Crosstown Arts, where she continued her self-teaching practice and developed vegan recipes. She eventually created a bread program and became head baker for Crosstown Arts.
Rohrbacher is in a good place with her career. "I can relate it to that way I thought that I would feel one day about doing visual art. I feel that every day because every day I'm baking bread. Every day I get to see and touch and then sometimes eat these products that I've made with my own hands. Because I've been working every day at it for the last few years. Because I care so much and I, literally, do work so hard. I get this sense of satisfaction from it that I absolutely did not get from data entry."
The cafe at Crosstown Arts, 1350 Concourse in the Crosstown Concourse, 507-8010