In April, Eva Ramirez and her boyfriend Javiar Hernández each got a call from Cosme, Enrique Olvera’s high-caliber Manhattan restaurant. They’d worked there as line cooks until being laid off over a year earlier, with Ramirez taking on the added role of pastry cook, as well. The restaurant was set to reopen for indoor dining at the end of the month, and the calls were to see if they would like to come back. “It was hard to accept the fact that we were going to have to do it again, go back to the line cook position,” Ramirez remembers. “It’s like, where do we stand? What do we want?”
A year ago, when it seemed like everyone in the entire restaurant industry had lost their jobs, Ramirez and Hernández were among the countless other hospitality workers who were granted an unexpected chance to reevaluate their relationships with a career in cooking. “I feel like the pandemic was something where a lot of people realized what they didn’t want and what they did want,” Ramirez says, “and that’s when they started pushing themselves.”
The couple worked through the questions that bothered others, too: the industry’s expectations of a difficult work-life balance, agency in the workplace, and ownership over your own creativity in a world where — in the public eye — ideas and dishes belong to chefs or restaurants, and not necessarily the people who first came up with them, like Hernández, who saw one of his dishes hit Cosme’s menu. “We’ve been working for this company for so long and we love them, but it’s always going to be theirs,” Ramirez says. “It has nothing to do with us.”
The two liked their work (Hernández went back to Cosme right away; Ramirez held off because of health issues relating to anemia), but they wondered where it would ultimately lead them. “There’s something about them that they’re going to do something, they’re going to make their mark, whatever that means,” says Fany Gerson, who hired Ramirez to work for a bit at her shop, Fan-Fan Doughnuts, last fall.
And in fact, when the Cosme calls came in April, Ramirez had already spent three months testing pastries at home — at the urging of Hernández — perfecting recipes like hibiscus-flavored conchas, the buttery streusel-topped roll. Eventually, Ramirez did go back to Cosme, but only after she and Hernández had launched a project of their own, too: Pan Rico, a pop-up bakery devoted to Mexican sweet breads with orders taken on Instagram. Now, the couple is doing something unlikely: Balancing full-time restaurant work with a passion project that offers creative fulfillment.
When they launched from their apartment in Queens, they debuted a trio of pastries: a cheerful-looking spelt-lemon concha with a Pac-Man yellow streusel, a croissant filled with horchata pastry cream and topped with sliced strawberries, and a vanilla-glazed poppy-seed-coconut Bundt cake. Their second set included a spelt-raspberry concha, a peach danish with vanilla pastry cream and nectarines, and a hibiscus-glazed Bundt cake filled with pockets of strawberry jam. (The pastry boxes, which are sold every other week via Instagram, cost $15 and are available for either pickup or — for an additional fee — delivery.)
While enthusiastic about Pan Rico, Ramirez is also honest about the difficulties of starting the pop-up. It cost roughly $1,000 to get it off the ground — a tough amount to swallow on a restaurant salary, living paycheck to paycheck — and they’re still investing in equipment. Working out of their own apartment, Ramirez initially hand-mixed all the dough, but has since borrowed a friend’s KitchenAid until she can afford to buy one. She’s had to eighty-six croissants until she can get a sheeter, and the couple had to figure out how to bake consistently in their unreliable home oven.
There’s also the matter of whether Pan Rico’s early success means devoting more time to the project (and less time at Cosme). “Trust me, if we could, we would,” Ramirez explains, “but we need that paycheck, we need to pay our bills, and this is something that’s not stable because we don’t know how much we’re going to sell.”
Nevertheless, the end goal is to build the pop-up into something more sustainable and, eventually, into a proper bakery and restaurant, possibly in Ramirez’s hometown of Chicago. For now, though, Ramirez has her mind on everything she’ll get to bake this fall and winter, and the variety of breads and pastries they can tap into. She talks about the pan dulce called besos — “two circles that are together, but it’s full of sugar” — and another called elotes, which have a butter-and-sugar filling. Also, a chocolate doughnut with sprinkles on top that is, Ramirez says, “a lot of chocolate,” before repeating herself for emphasis: “A lot of chocolate.” In October, they’ll do a pan de muertos for the Day of the Dead, and come Christmas they’ll have a Nativity bread. She’s pulling a couple things from Gerson’s My Sweet Mexico, too, and wants to draw on flavors from other cuisines. Starting the pop-up has allowed her to figure out her potential.
“Starting it off, there are no rules — you don’t go by whatever other people are doing,” Ramirez explains. She pulls inspiration from different places, and wants to bake the foods that remind her of home. Ultimately, she says it all comes down to one question that she asks herself again and again: “What else are you capable of doing?”