“Once you learn to cook, it’s a skill that no one can ever take away from you. It’s the gift that keeps giving.”
There are two things you need to know about Tammy Bakewell. The first is that her last name definitely suits her—she does indeed bake well. After a 20-year-long career in the Marines as a food service specialist followed by almost a decade as the Culinary Arts teacher at Hemet High School in Hemet, California, Bakewell can turn out cookies, cakes, and pies better than anyone.
The second thing is that Tammy Bakewell is one of the most creative, generous, and thoughtful educators you will ever find.
Of course, there is more to anyone than just two facts. Tammy doesn’t just bake, for instance—her seafood gumbo and her hot sausage po’ boy are also specialties, ones she perfected while growing up in Louisiana. Bakewell recalls always being surrounded by people who loved to cook: “I come from a big cooking family. My grandmother and my mother loved to cook, my father too. I started cooking when I was 4 years old and have never stopped.”
This cooking was a gateway to a career path she never expected. After receiving a Navy & Marine Corps Commendation Medal for her years of exceptional service both cooking and training others in the military (a tremendous honor given to those who “distinguish themselves by heroism, outstanding achievement, or meritorious service”), she and her husband, also a Marine, thought they would retire to Guam. But the heat of the island was unbearable—way hotter than any kitchen she had ever worked in!—so they moved to Camp Pendleton, where they had both been stationed in 1993. “We had to start over, which was really hard after being in the Marines for so many years. I figured I would get a job as a general manager running restaurants,” Bakewell tells me.
But then she got a call from Troops to Teachers, an organization that helps service members and veterans transition to careers in K-12 schools. “I started teaching part-time and found I really liked it,” says Bakewell. “I felt a void in my life when I left the military.” What she missed most was mentoring young Marines, many of whom were either high-school age or recent graduates. When she started teaching at the high-school level, that void was filled.
“As a Marine, I saw so many people dealing with tough issues that as a school teacher, I can recognize signs and help steer students in the right direction.”
Soon after, she took a full-time job as the Culinary Arts teacher at Hemet High School, where she has now remained for eight years and counting. At Hemet, she teaches her students how to operate a kitchen, with a curriculum that includes the fundamentals of food safety and sanitation as well as introductions to cooking and baking. Her classes are unbelievably popular, which Tammy thinks might have something to do with not only the culinary practice but also the subsequent eating: “If you ever come to my 4th period class, the one right after lunch, you will see many students standing outside my door waiting to get in just so they can have their second lunch.”
If you talk to her students, however, it’s clear that the main draw is Mrs. Bakewell. They may come for the food, but they stay for her. For the homey, safe feel of her classroom, decorated with uplifting quotes and affirmations, and for the endless fun she creates within that classroom—so much fun that she has a hard time getting her budding chefs to leave! “Sometimes kids enjoy just coming in and hanging out,” she says.
As a teacher, Tammy tries to turn every setback into an opportunity. Given the popularity of her class and current budget constraints, for example, there isn’t enough money to buy all the equipment she needs. To fill the gap, Bakewell has both paid for supplies out of pocket and called on her own childhood experiences: “When my family would get together, the adults would gather and my cousins and I would have to come up with our own games and ways to pass the time,” Bakewell remembers. “We didn’t have television or cell phones, so we cooked. We would just look in the cabinets and come up with something.”
She now calls that “game” Creative Cooking, and her students play it every Friday. “I have six groups in my class and there are about five to six students per table. Each group decides what they want to cook using ingredients that they have brought in.” Tammy provides staples like seasonings and adds what she considers a very important ingredient: music. The result is creative, innovative, and fun—the three goals she always sets for her class.
And during the difficult remote days of the pandemic, Mrs. Bakewell came into her classroom every day, turned on her video, played music, and demonstrated one recipe after another so that her students could feel as if they were still at school. “Some of the parents even got involved as if it were a cooking class,” she says. “I had one mother who joined and danced her way through the lesson.”
“I feel as though I am not just mentoring them, but actually raising a whole bunch of kids."
Most of all, Mrs. Bakewell provides her students with deeply transformative and compassionate mentorship. As Sophia Tilley, a former student of hers and currently a freshman at California State University, tells me, “Mrs. Bakewell is someone you could go to with anything, and her advice would always be helpful and straightforward.” Tilley recognizes how valuable it was to have someone like that during high school. “Beyond my parents, it was important to have someone else like that in my life.”
Tilley took Bakewell’s class for a full year and was the student who nominated her for the Honored National Teaching Award. “I was just so impressed by her work ethic and by how much she has done in her life,” says Tilley. Other lessons Bakewell taught Tilley and her fellow students range from “always hold yourself accountable” to “never stop hustling” to “always have a Plan B.”
Tilley also notes Bakewell’s power as a role model at Hemet. “Hemet is a low-income area,” she points out, “so a lot of kids really struggle. Mrs. Bakewell has always been a good person for students to confide in and because she is one of the few African American teachers on campus, many students look up to her.”
When asked about her ability to connect with students, Bakewell references her time in the military: “As a Marine, I saw so many people dealing with tough issues that as a school teacher, I can recognize signs and help steer students in the right direction.” Bakewell says this is particularly true of students who are currently in foster homes. “When they come to school after going from home to home, they don’t have direction or purpose, they don’t care about school and they don’t look to the future, so I try to help them see their potential.”
Here again Bakewell borrows from her military past, using a term she learned as a Marine: she strives to “create road maps for success,” working with her students to articulate what they want to do in their lives and plot the classes and experiences they need to get there.
Bakewell is also incredibly maternal, so much so that students sometimes call her “Mama.” Bakewell welcomes the nickname: “I feel as though I am not just mentoring them, but actually raising a whole bunch of kids.”
“Mrs. Bakewell has always been a good person for students to confide in and because she is one of the few African American teachers on campus, many students look up to her.”
And like a good mother, Bakewell is a disciplinarian, known for being fair but demanding respect. Tilley describes her as “loving, but strict.” As her students go out into the world, Bakewell tells her students to remember, “You are a reflection of me. You know what I have taught you, so you know what I expect of you when you go out into the world.”
And then she reminds them: “Once you learn to cook, it’s a skill that no one can ever take away from you. It’s the gift that keeps giving.” Mrs. Bakewell’s impact at Hemet is a gift that keeps on giving, too.
Photography by Jason Cun
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