EAST WILLIAMSBURG — Pete Bessent had been in and out of jail for selling drugs, joined the Crips and got shot in a gun fight. He tried to raise two young kids in the shelter system with a wife who was struggling with drug addiction. And cobbled together a living driving cabs and selling scrap metal, he said.
They were living in a shelter apartment when his wife broke up with him and kicked him out. She soon lost custody of their children. He wound up back at the shelter, this time by himself.
"I was like a baby crying, the [men were] looking at me like I was crazy," said 39-year-old Bessent.
"I was very, very broken."
But hitting rock bottom allowed him to find purpose in life: baking.
The seven year transition from broken and homeless to head baker at the Doe Fund's bakery, supplying Challah bread, coconut macaroons, spinach and feta scones to farmer's markets all over the city, started with a job training course.
"Something just clicked with me, I was good at all of it, it was my calling," he said, adding that baking awoke childhood memories of when his mother, who was from Grenada, baking fresh Caribbean bread. And he adored the science and precision it required, he said.
"I was too into the streets, I was doing negative things [I didn't] actually sit back and find out what I'm really good at," he said. "Aside from helping my mom out here and there, it was just something, I never really thought that I would want to do."
After working in several restaurants once he graduated from the Doe Fund training, he got called back to work full-time about five years ago.
Now he's helps manage 23 employees and around 30 more trainees who he teaches baking and cooking skills as part of the Doe Fund's culinary arts jobs training program.
In the past three years they've turned their kitchen in East Williamsburg, which always provided meals to people who live in the facility, into a bakery.
They started selling to uptown and Bronx farmers markets two years ago and this year they've expanded locally, offering their scones, breads, macaroons, pies and cakes at the Bushwick Farmers Market and the Bushwick Food Coop.
And reception has been "really positive," said Sean-Michael Fleming, head of Ecostation:NY that runs the Bushwick Farmer's Market, who's developed a soft spot for their freshly baked breads and brownies. "It's really outstanding, great quality, variety and culinary creativity."
"We hope to have long relationship," he added.
About two dozen permanent staffers who graduated for the Doe Fund's training program man the bakery and kitchen, while a rotating cast of "trainees" who live at Doe Fund facilities, get on the job training in baking and cooking.
"It's like birthing a baby all over again," said Bessent, with a chuckle, who serves as a mentor to younger men who are dealing with a lot of the same situations he went through several years ago. "A lot of the guys, they've got problems with authority because of the life that they lived."
And baking can teach a lot, said Daniel Djoro, 45, a staffer at the bakery who struggled with a gambling addiction that left him homeless about a decade ago.
"Baking is just discipline. It's measurements, it's process," Djoro said. "If you get the wrong measurements you're going to get the bad product so you got to be precise."
"My job [is to] teach those guys to go through the process."
Curtis Glover, 42, a trainee, ended up in the Doe Fund after he lost his job nursing home and then his apartment.
"Six months bouncing around from family members houses until you just get tired. I don't want to be a burden anymore," he said.
While he'd always loved to cook, he's come to appreciate the unique joy baked goods can bring to clients.
One customer at a market in the Bronx fell in love with their feta and spinach scones and would come every week to buy a dozen. One day they ran out of the scones before he arrived, Glover said.
"He had this look on his face like his dog just got shot," he said. From then on Glover made sure to reserve the him a handful of scones each week.
"I just love baking," he said.