Nineteen-year-old pastry chef Kalea Barnes says her interest in baking as a career began after she read a book in the fifth grade about a girl a lot like her who wanted to open a cafe.
“After reading that chapter book back in elementary school, I started to bake a lot more with my grandma in the kitchen and my mom, and just taking on opportunities where I can get more baking experience,” Barnes says in an interview in the kitchen of her mother’s home in Kalamazoo’s Eastwood neighborhood. “And so, it came from a book.”
Barnes’ mother, Kalinda, listening in from the dining room, interjects: Barnes’ origin story is older than that.
“She had the Easy Bake Oven. She was always baking,” Kalinda says. “So she definitely had the passion for it before she got to the book.”
Whatever it was that inspired her, it worked.
In 2020, at the age of 16, she founded Parisian Dream Desserts, offering a selection of cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and danishes that look like they belong in a pâtisserie display case.
And this spring, she published a book of her own: “Chef Jasmine goes to Tanzania,” an 85-page children’s chapter book about a young African American woman who wins a baking contest and goes to Tanzania to teach young people how to bake. There she meets students who each have their own challenges in life. Through her own experiences of loss and learning, Chef Jasmine inspires and encourages her students to succeed.
The impetus for the book, she says, came out of her experience with the Merze Tate Explorers – an experiential education and travel group for Kalamazoo area pre-teen and teenage girls founded by Sonya Bernard-Hollins in 2008. The organization is inspired by Merze Tate, a Michigan native born in 1905 who was a pioneering student for African American women at Western Michigan, Oxford (England), Columbia, and Harvard universities, as well as a world traveler and journalist.
Bernard-Hollins, a journalist and publisher herself, put a call out through her Explorers for anyone who wants to write a book. She would coach and publish it. Barnes was 17 at the time.
“As soon as I saw the message, I’m like, ‘You’re saying I could write a book right now and the expenses will be covered and I would be the author?’ And I took on the opportunity,” Barnes says. “And you know, just being able to say that I’m an author … I think it’s pretty dope to say, and to hear it come out of my mouth.”
Barnes’ official culinary training began with cooking classes through the Education for Employment program at the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center, while a student at Linden Grove Middle School. She continued her training with internships at local and regional bakeries like Continental Bakery in Battle Creek.
Barnes culminated her studies with two years at Port Huron’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, a private culinary school where she studied college general education but focused on baking and cooking classes in her second year.
“We baked lots of different breads,” Barnes says, “like five to eight breads a day.”
She also traveled with her mom to New York to visit bakeries like the Paris Baguette chain, where she heard the buzz of a busy bakery and was inspired to formulate her own business plans.
For her sixteenth birthday, her mom gifted her with a trip to Chicago to see big city restaurants and filed the paperwork to start a Limited Liability Company.
“Now I do all the paperwork myself,” she says. “You know, it really did make me feel more official. And that’s when I got, you know, really serious about my business and expanding.”
She is currently operating Parisian Dream Desserts under the Michigan Cottage Industry Law (MCIL) from her mother’s home in Kalamazoo. The beautifully decorated pastries are available by order via her website.
“My next step is to get a commercial kitchen here in Kalamazoo. Just so I can start working over there,” she says. “I’ll be in college as well around that time. I think it would be best to just start baking from the commercial kitchen.”
This fall, Barnes will be attending Western Michigan University to focus on business marketing, giving her the opportunity to fully bake her own dreams: her first brick-and-mortar bakery before she turns 25, and then open multiple additional locations, travel the world, “and to be financially free too.”
“I don’t want to have to work for anybody. But at my age now, I think it’s okay, but as I get older, I definitely would just like to have my own business and run multiple other businesses as well. I have a real entrepreneurship mindset and I love to just know how to make money on my own, be creative and innovative.”
Through her cooking businesses, Barnes wants to encourage healthy eating habits, especially for young girls. That’s already begun: Parisian Dream provides traditional desserts, but her specialties are gluten-free, vegan, and sugar-free.
Working her way around her mom’s kitchen, Barnes shares her dreams for the future in the same calm demeanor and confidence she exudes in preparing her favorite cookie, combining ingredients carefully in her sleek black stand mixer – she would have preferred her signature pink, but the company didn’t make them in that color. “That was my first purchase for my business” she beams.
She forms the dough into balls, dips them into powdered sugar, and sets them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Barnes checks the color and height of the cookie as they bake, pointing out how much of a difference only a few moments in a hot oven can make. It’s a secret recipe, she says, for “My Momma’s Lemon Cookies,” which she first learned to bake as a 9-year-old at the side of her mom.
The cookies are tender – a result of the gentle folding technique she uses – with just a light crunchy crust on the outside giving way to a fluffy lemony crumb on the inside.
Despite the French-inspired business name, one day she hopes to perfect the ubiquitous American cookie. “I know this might be silly to say but, chocolate chip cookies. Oh, I’m gonna make them but they gotta be perfect.” She’s experimented with a variety of recipes but isn’t there yet.
Between school and being an archery instructor, lifeguard, and counselor at a summer camp, somehow she finds the time to bake. And write. Next up, she’s considering a nonfiction book about summer camp, or perhaps a book of poetry.
With book signings and readings scheduled in the fall, Barnes plans to share her work with Kalamazoo youth to follow her business motto: “Desire to Inspire.”
In the book, Chef Jasmine meets three characters she will teach to bake. Each one is different with special circumstances such as homelessness or disability. When asked what inspired her to address these issues, she calls on real world problems.
“I wanted to have a different view for the kids like, okay, everything is not going to be perfect,” she says. “It’s just another thing with self esteem or something like just things that kids are dealing with, that other kids can relate to. It’s like showing them that, okay, yeah, even though you have this, you can still go after your dream, you could still do it. Like, you can still bake a cake, you can still have fun and enjoy doing the things that you love and everything. I had to put the realness into it.”
Independent journalism is essential to a healthy democracy. Make a donation today.
Thank you to the community institutions that support our work: