Dave Okapal, better known as “Baker Dave,” is the pastry chef for Sodexo at Johnson and Hardwick dining hall and the Student Center food court. He has been running the bakery at the cafeteria for nine years.
Along with baking gingerbread men for the holidays and Temple “T” cookies on a regular basis, Okapal also bakes for a cause.
In October, he and his colleagues baked cookies with pink ribbons on them to raise money for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation in the fight against breast cancer. He helped raise more than $1,400 for the cause.
In addition to baking being his occupation, Okapal has a passion for baking as an art. “As a creative person I think you need an outlet, and I learned to express myself through baking,” Okapal said.
The Temple News: What was it like working in the bakery when you first started?
Dave Okapal: When I came in here, the bakery was run basically like a standard, contract-services bakery. The food was fine, it wasn’t over the top at all. My background is actually working in four-star hotels and resorts, so I didn’t just grow up in this environment, I’m used to making everything from scratch, so I took everything that they weren’t making from scratch and started making it from scratch. The first task when I got here was to switch over to higher quality, healthier food. That’s basically what I’ve been doing since then.
TTN: Why does everybody call you Baker Dave?
DO: Well the whole reason the “Baker Dave” nickname stuck was because — and I don’t think I’m exaggerating — but I think there were [about] five people working here with the name Dave, and it just got [confusing]. You know, you’d be like, “Well, what did Dave say about that?” And the other person would be like, “Well, which Dave are you talking about?” So you’d respond, “Baker Dave” and the name kind of just stuck. There was a “Catering Dave” but it wasn’t quite the same. It was more to explain what he did. It’s going to sound kind of silly, but I think that there’s a little bit of a distinction between a title like that and a personality. It’s going to sound stupid to say this, but I guess because baking is more than just a job, it’s more of who I am. A title like “Catering Dave” is more about the job, not their passion.
TTN: How did you find your passion for baking?
DO: So, I’ve always felt that I was a fairly creative person. I would express that in different ways growing up…I was actually in a band in high school and we would write our own music and touring and you know, we thought we were going to be the greatest thing ever and then that fell apart. I played guitar, I started playing the violin when I was 4 years old, and my whole life has been revolved around music, my parents both played instruments and that’s just something we did.
So, anyway, I ended up [graduating high school] and I had to pick a school to go to. So I decided to go to culinary school. I went to Johnson & Wales [University] and actually went down and toured the school and had already signed up to be in culinary and do the regular chef thing. But during the tour there were two points that totally pulled me away from that. One was visiting the butcher shop, and I realized I had no interest in playing with raw meat — it’s kind of gross. The next point, I walked into the pastry shop and I saw this guy blowing sugar. It looks very similar to blowing glass in that you make the sugar stuff, and you blow air into it and you mold it into whatever you want. And I was like, “Wow this is awesome, this is what I want to do.” So I switched my major at that point.
TTN: What is your background in baking?
DO: So right when you first get out of college, you do the grunt work. You get out of school and you have this degree, and you’re doing the crappy work at these places. But you want it to look good that you worked at these places. I worked at Trump’s Taj Mahal and I worked at the Hilton Resort and it was great to have all these fantastic names on my résumé, but I was scooping ice cream, it’s not awesome stuff. I would just keep moving up and, eventually, I had a job at Hotel DuPont and I was doing all the wedding cakes. At that point, I was able to use some of my creativity. I actually created new cakes to put in our books to sell to people and customers would come to me and ask for a suggestion and I would be free to do what I wanted.
Once I was able to use that creativity, I realized creativity isn’t necessarily bound by what you think you love, but just that [the creativity] needs to be expressed somehow. I used to think if I couldn’t play guitar, then I had nothing. But then I realized later on that, as I’m over there creating all these cakes, I was playing guitar less and less and less, but I was okay with it. I was expressing myself in another way. I think that’s the point when I took it on more as a personality, more than just a job.
TTN: How did you raise the money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation?
DO: A guy that I work with actually suggested [this idea]. He was like, “Oh, we should do something this month, it’s October Breast Cancer [Awareness Month].” But once we started doing it and I said “OK, let’s do this, and I designed [a ribbon-shaped cookie] and decided how much we were going to charge and what we were going to do and where the money was going to go, I actually got really into it. My mom is actually a breast cancer survivor, so it became very personal. And I think that makes a big difference.
My only regret is that I didn’t make more cookies. Every cookie that I made, we sold, so I feel like if I made more cookies, we would have made more money. But there are only so many hours in the day, but I somehow wish I could have raised more. We did pretty well — we raised about $1,400, so I thought that was pretty good. It’s not just me though, I totally think that the people that bought them — the students, the faculty — whoever went out and bought these, it’s a testament to them too, because they were willing to pay a little extra to support the cause. The breast cancer cookies were exactly the same, just with food coloring and a pink ribbon. We sold them for $1.99 and the original cookies are $1.49…A dollar from each cookie went to the cause. I would love to work more with student organizations to help raise money for them. For example, if Habitat for Humanity came to me and wanted help raising money, I would bake house-shaped cookies and sell them to donate proceeds to the organization.
We made cookies for NCOW — National Coming Out Week. It wasn’t for monetary support, but more for a conversation starter to bring awareness. So that’s the kind of thing I’d like to do in the future.
Nickee Plaksen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.