Baker Yolanda East and her baker and chef colleague Michael Kimball say the essence of Yola’s Coffee & Cafe is simple: It is in the memory of little Manuel “Will” Cabezas, making it all about a family atmosphere and good quality food.
Will is the 3-year-old nephew of East who drowned in an accident at the Green Island Country Club swimming pool in July 2015. The tragic moment shook the entire family, ultimately leading to the recent launch of Yola’s Coffee & Cafe in the Midtown area of Columbus.
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In fact, Will’s face is in the eatery’s logo, with pictures of the youngster on the walls at the cafe and a special area set up for children who enter the establishment to sit a spell and play or enjoy some ice cream or a cookie. The honoring of Will continues Thursday afternoon, with the dedication of a bench at Parkhill Cemetery. That day, Yola’s also will be offering a free cup of coffee to those who visit the cafe. It aptly is called Will’s gourmet blend.
For East, 49, and Kimball, 32, their work also is to fuel the bodies and minds of customers needing made-from-scratch artisan breads and soups, sandwiches salads and sweet treats that include Yola’s signature sour cream pound cake, made from her grandmother’s recipe.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with the two recently — they both are bakers, while he has the added title of chef — to discuss their jobs at the restaurant and how they arrived at this moment in their lives at the cafe at 1815 Garrard St. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. You both have your roles?
A. Yola: My specialty is the baked sweets, cakes, cupcakes, brownies, cookies, and then the chef does the breads from the scratch, foods from scratch and the salads.
Q. You got your start, Yola, at Bluebelle Artist Market in Columbus?
A. Yola: I did. I was baking. I had a booth there. It’s for artists who have created things that are their passion, like refurbished furniture, and some had their croqueting items in there. I was bringing in my foods and was the only baker.
Q. How about you, Michael?
A. Michael: I was managing two restaurants in Virginia. (At one of them) I was executive chef at Golden Leaf Bistro, which is a very upscale place. (Yola’s) brother Manuel and I had known each other when I living in Columbus. We had talked about (a restaurant here) eight and nine years ago and I guess the timing and everything fell in place.
Q. How did you get into cooking and food preparation?
A. Michael: I worked at a couple of places with a few different chefs, but primarily with one gentleman who was a master artisan bread maker. He really showed me the ropes. His name was John Makin and he had a little bakery in Pine Mountain. That’s where I trained with him for awhile. He was from South Africa and he cooked for Nelson Mandela’s inaugural address. He was very well traveled and I soaked up a lot of knowledge from him.
Q. Your grandmother’s sour cream pound cake is a hit, Yola?
A. Yola: My biggest seller is my sour cream pound cake, and that’s a recipe of hers. I do have other recipes that I’m gong to slowly bring in to feature. At Bluebelle it was my biggest seller. I sold a half a cake for $5.
Q. What do you enjoy the most about your job?
A. Yola: I enjoy making things. It’s because I have (recipes) down pat. I can close my eyes. I don’t even have them written down. I’ve done it so long and know it by heart.
Q. Are there challenges for you?
A. Michael: I’ve got to tell you she was very quiet when I first met her, and she’s really coming out and meeting everybody. She’ll be up here in front greeting everybody and it’s really nice to see that.
A. Yola: I just want them to know that we’re happy they’re here.
Q. So you’re enjoying the interactivity with the customers?
Yola: I’m liking it and enjoying it. I think about how people who have their own family restaurants, you see them on public television shows. It’s just about family. We’ve had people here from day one come in every day, once a day at least.
Q. Turning to you, Michael, can you tell us about the breads you make?
A. Michael: Yes, sir. On this menu we have Georgia sweet tea loaf, which is basically white bread made with sweet tea instead of water. We have local honey whole wheat. We do sourdough French bread. We’ve got cracklin’ ciabatta. We’ve got baguettes. There’s over 22 types of bread that I know how to make.
Q. Do you experiment from time to time?
A. Michael: I do. The sweet tea bread has been one of them. It seems to be pretty popular. I would say it’s one of our best-selling breads.
Q. What does it take to be a good baker?
A. Michael: Patience and repetition. You’ve got to do it a thousand times before you know how to do it right.
Q. Breads literally take extra time to make?
A. Michael: Yes. Some of these artisan breads are not a very quick process. There are long fermentations on bread to get it to develop that flavor and texture. I’ll start tonight to build some of my doughs. I’ll go home and get here about 3 o’clock in the morning and then start staging the breakfast stuff with muffins and cinnamon rolls and scones and biscuits. Then I’ll finish my dough, and I’m baking by 4 o’clock.
Q. You bake the breads for the sandwiches?
A. Michael: Yes, sir. Everything we do here is from scratch. We’re not making the sour cream or cheese or anything, but I wouldn’t see where that would be a problem in the future.
Q. What’s the toughest part about making good bread?
A. Michael: Patience. When I say it’s a long process, take the ciabatta bread, it has a fermentation of 12 to 16 hours. And once you put your final dough together, there’s another three hours of folding the dough to get air into it and then letting it rest ... and there’s a 30-minute bake time on it, and that’s just one bread.
Q. Have you always had patience?
A. Michael: I did not. When I was very young and starting out in this profession, I did not have that. But I’ve always had the passion and the desire to learn and do it, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of people guide me along the way. I guess they saw the desire in me.
Q. Is baking bread calming or intense for you?
A. Michael: To me it’s calming, because you’re focused and you have to stage yourself and be very organized. The artist inside of us use long fermentation to add flavor, versus adding preservatives and caustic acids to bread to do a quick process, which is what the commercial (people) do. The process for them is to dump everything in a mixer and beat the bread with a dough hook until it’s developed and then bake it.
Q. Are early days routine for you, Yola?
A. Yola: I get in about 5. I’d like to get here by 4, but sometimes that bed has a hold on me. But my daughter and her friend have been helping us ... That makes it easier for me to spend time during the day doing what I need to do to get ready and prepared.
Q. Finally, what sweets would you recommend to someone who walks in the door at your cafe?
A. Yola: My brownies and chocolate chip cookies. The brownies have been going quite well. A lady was going to come in Friday for three of them, and I think some cracklin’ bread. I had raspberry orange torte yesterday and they all sold.
Yolanda “Yola” East
Hometown: Born in Miami, Fla., but only lived there six months before her family moved to Phenix City, where she was raised. Her father is from Quito, Ecuador
Current residence: Phenix City
Education: Graduate of Smiths Station High School
Previous jobs: Worked for 10 years in the lab at St. Francis Hospital in Columbus; sold bakery goods at Bluebelle Artist Market in Columbus; before that she was a stay-at-home mother who also still takes care of her mother and father
Family: Husband, Michael East, four grown children and four grandsons
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with her family, including her parents who live with her
Hometown: Manchester, Ga.
Current residence: Columbus
Family: Fiancée Courtney Cheever, and a daughter, Kora, who will be 2 years old on July 4
Education: Graduate of Manchester High School in Manchester, Ga.; attended Columbus State University for five years, studying history, anthropology and geology, before leaving to pursue a culinary career
Previous: Has worked at bar and grills, and managed a couple of restaurants in Virginia, including the Gold Leaf Bistro in Danville
Leisure time: Enjoys walking around the park with his family; likes to do yardwork and landscaping around the house