No one embodies the American dream more vividly than Luminita Cirstea. She is a living testimony to the fact that, in this country, if given a chance and if talented and determined enough (two big if’s), you can become what you want to be.
Born in the small city of Vilcea-Dragasani in Romania to a history teacher and a landscape designer, Lumi always dreamed of working in the food industry. But her parents believed that a career as a baker would be a surefire ticket to long hours and low pay. So she became a telecommunications engineer in Sibiu, a medieval town in Transylvania.
The years passed. She excelled at what she was doing, was sent abroad for further training, and even got promoted, but her heart wasn’t in her career. Each evening she had to set three alarm clocks to make sure she would wake up in the morning, and every morning she had to drag herself out of bed.
The dream hadn’t died, however. Only now it was focused on relocating to the United States, a country where she was convinced it could come true. So, seven years in a row, she tried her luck at the annual Green Card Lottery and in 2001, she hit the jackpot. She won permanent residency and was given one month to wrap up her life in Romania and move to the US.
Lumi said her goodbyes and bought a one-way ticket to Chicago. Why Chicago? When interviewed for her visa by a staff member at the American Consulate, she was asked to choose a port of entry. Her interviewer was from Chicago and told her it was a beautiful city. She picked Chicago.
When she arrived at O’Hare International Airport, Lumi knew exactly three words of English: “okay” “exit” and “thank you.” (Should you be curious to discover what it feels like to arrive in a country where you understand nobody and nobody understands you, click here for The Bridge to a Dream, Lumi’s story of her first hours on American soil.)
Her mom had helped her to pack four enormous suitcases. By the time she was done with the formalities and issued her papers, these four cases were the only ones left on the carousel in the baggage claim area. Nobody was in sight, and she could not read the instructions on how to get a luggage cart. Since she couldn’t possibly carry all of her bags, she picked two at random, removed the tags from the other ones, and left them behind. It was a heartbreak and to this day, she hasn’t had the courage to tell her mother.
The taxi driver took $100 to drive her and her two suitcases to a nearby motel where she stayed until she found her first job. Her telecom experience was of no value since the technologies she had learned in Romania had long ago become obsolete in the US. Through an agency that primarily placed immigrants, she was hired by a wealthy family in the suburbs of Chicago as a live-in dog sitter and housekeeper. In exchange for room and board and a modest stipend, she walked the dogs, prepared their meals, and cleaned the house.
Knowing that she needed to learn English, she asked her employer to help her arrange for lessons which she would pay for out of her own pocket. After a while, she was ready to find a new job where she could practice her English. She was hired for the holiday season at Piron Belgian Chocolatier, and afterwards worked at a variety of jobs that ranged from waitress to veterinary assistant.
She continued to improve her English, attending free ESL (English as a second language) classes at night at a local high school. Once she knew enough English to get by, she enrolled in evening classes in grammar, punctuation and speech at a local community college. She became an American citizen on April 18, 2006, one of the “proudest days of [her] life”.
The next step was to get into culinary school. She applied to and was accepted by the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago. In her mind, food was love and she wanted to make people happy through the dishes she would create.
To support herself while in school, she worked full time in a seafood company where she had secured a sales job. She also received from Les Dames d’Escoffier of Chicago a generous fellowship which helped pay her tuition.
One of the requirements for the year-long program in Professional Cookery was to take a Baking & Pastry class. That class changed her life forever. She decided to continue her education for two more years by working towards an Associate’s Degree in Baking & Pastry and discovered in Chef Melina Kelson-Podolsky’s class that her greatest passion was making artisan bread.
After three years at Kendall, she graduated with an A.A. degree in Baking & Pastry and a Certificate in Professional Cookery. She was selected as the student speaker at the commencement ceremony where she was given the Escoffier Award as well as the George Bay Award for Baking & Pastry Excellence. (For the text of her colorful graduation speech, click here.)
After graduation, Lumi worked at Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston, Illinois where she had earlier completed an internship. She learned to move fast and to be “a dough doctor” (when dough isn’t behaving as expected in a bakery, there is no time to google the issue or peruse through a book). She learned a lot from the owner of the bakery, Jory Downer, winner of the Gold Cup at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (Bread World Cup) in 2005, as well as from his hard-working and talented team.
Chef Downer recommended that she become a Certified Journey Baker. She passed the test in 2008. Always ready to challenge herself, she went one step further the next year and took another exam (both written and hands-on) to become a Certified Baker. Again, she passed.
Meanwhile, in 2008, Lumi competed in the first ever California Raisin Bread Contest with a rye/raisin formula she had spent two months perfecting while working at Bennison’s.
Since her twenty competitors were experienced and well-known bakers from all over the country, she had no expectations to win and simply went for the experience. When her name was called as a Co-Grand Prize Winner (with Lionel Vatinet) in the Artisan Bread category, she became all choked up. (For a look at her formula, click here)
The California Raisin Board awarded all of the winners a tour of California raisin country, various vineyards in the Napa Valley, Yosemite National Park, and the San Francisco Bay area in late March 2009.
By that time Lumi had left Benisson’s where she had been working full-time since her graduation. She had decided to do some “graduate work” in baking & pastry by taking classes with such master bakers as Didier Rosada and Jeff Hamelman as well as by attending workshops with Paco Torreblanco as well as with Stephan Glacier (with whom she will perfect the making of French macaroons this coming October).
She also traveled to work in bakeries under the excellent supervision of Tim Foley at the Bit of Swiss in Michigan and Solveig Tofte at the Turtle Bakery in Minneapolis. Never shy of learning something new, she helped build a brick-oven at Kendall College (for pictures of this experience, click here).
Earlier this year, Lumi also signed up for the “Draft”, a two-day hands-on workshop for bakers hoping to participate in the next Coupe du Monde. She created and then painstakingly tested formulas for six different breads for nearly four months.
At the workshop which took place at the San Francisco Culinary Institute in June, she met “fabulous bakers”, such as John Tredgold (aka J.T.) from Semifreddi’s, Ben Hershberger from the Phoenician, and Matt McDonald from Bouchon Bakery to mention only a few. Working alongside “these stars of the American baking world”, Lumi felt she was once again living a dream.
Today, impatient for each new day to start, she no longer needs three alarm clocks to wake up. She actually wakes up before the alarm goes off. She is eager “to give back what [she] has received, to help make other people passionate about bread, to put [her] fingerprints somewhere” (her own words). And so she will, for sure! Meanwhile keep your eyes peeled for her name! One day you may see it in the list of champion bakers who represent the United States at the Coupe du monde…
I had the good fortune to meet Lumi last spring at SFBI’s Whole Grains Workshop with Didier Rosada. We met again this summer at Artisan III, again with Didier Rosada. True to what her name evokes (“lumen” means “light” in Latin), Lumi has a glow about her. She radiates warmth and generosity and when you hear her story, you can’t help being awed and deeply moved. So let’s give her a solid round of applause and wish her the very best! Lumi, we are honored that you chose to come and live in this country.