‘Wantrepreneur’ attorney turned baker elevates Shabbat with her challah

Mar 5, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

Luisa Hagemeier had not even turned six years old when she took up baking, and she can still tell you the recipe for the first cake she ever made.

Young Luisa Hagemeier baking in her home“I mixed flour, sugar, and water, and I cooked it in the toaster oven,” she says with a laugh. “It was disgusting—obviously.”

In a New York Upper West Side home where her own mother was proud of the fact that she could not cook or bake, Hagemeier was the child who loved to play with her food because it meant she could mix things together.

“It drove my mother crazy,” she says. “To this day, I can still sit in front of the oven for an hour and watch things bake. I love the alchemy of it—it’s like magic.”

Today, Hagemeier—an attorney turned baker—is at the helm of the cleverly-named “Challahrado Hearth—Carbs from the Old Country” based at the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center (JCC). Friday mornings at 5 a.m., you will find her in the JCC kitchen, turning out same-day orders for babka (cinnamon and chocolate) challah (regular, rainbow, vegan, ceremonial and more), hamentashen (all the traditional fillings plus Nutella), almond horns and more.

Charles Laarsen has been a customer since Hagemeier opened shop. He raves about the convenience of pick-up at the JCC and the quality of the challah.

“My Uncle Marty is from Hollywood, Florida, a hub of Judaism, and he knows his challah,” Laarsen says. “He also has an opinion about everything, and nothing is ever perfect. But when he was over for Shabbat and tasted Luisa’s challah, he said, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ And if it’s good enough for Uncle Marty, it’s good enough for the rest of us.”

Circle challah from Challahrado HearthWith characteristic self-deprecating humor, Hagemeier laughs at the suggestion that she is an entrepreneur. “More like a ‘wantrepreneur,’” she says.

But in the 18 months since she launched Challahrado Hearth, business has doubled and is still growing. She has also established herself as a popular baking teacher at the JCC Denver. The path to her current venture has been full of detours, taking her from law school, to motherhood, to a career as a commercial litigator (including a stint at a New York white shoe law firm), back to culinary school for baking and pastry, and then across the country to a new life in Denver.

It’s been a literal and metaphoric journey of self-discovery and reconnection with her Judaism.

“There was a time when I rebelled against Judaism,” she says. “But when I started this business, I realized there is more than one way to honor your heritage and embrace it. Challahrado Hearth is the way I do that now.”

New York and the law

Hagemeier was born into a family of New York legal royalty. Her father spent his legal career with one firm and her mother, Judith S. Kaye, was the first woman appointed to the New York Court of Appeals and the first woman to be chief judge of the court. Expected to follow in her parents’ footsteps, Hagemeier graduated from New York University School of Law in 1991 and clerked for a federal judge for one year. Then she became pregnant, and motherhood changed the trajectory of her law career.

Luisa Hagemeier“For women lawyers, it’s better to get established as a lawyer for six to seven years and then have your children,” she says. “But I wanted children and that forced me to zig and zag in different things in the law.”

Hagemeier gave birth to her first child, Sonja, then joined Davis Polk doing commercial litigation. She took time off to have her second child, Andie, then joined a nonprofit representing foster children and discovered she loved appellate work, so she moved to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Appeals Bureau. Pregnant with her third child, Bennett, she followed her former husband to London for his career. Several years later, she returned to New York, now doing commercial litigation for a variety of firms, trying to make the difficult transition from, as she describes it, “being a worker bee to being a rainmaker.”

In 2016, Hagemeier’s mother died, leaving her with a “huge hole in my life” but also with a new sense of “permission” to walk away from a career that was no longer fulfilling.

“As long as my mother was alive, I felt I could not stop doing law because that was her expectation,” she says. “I took a year off, and then I said, ‘Okay, what do I want to do?’”

The answer to that question came from that little girl who loved to mix flour, sugar, and water.

Colorado and the kitchen

At age 51, Hagemeier went back to school—culinary school—to learn baking and pastry. She interned at New York’s Michelin-starred Gotham Bar and Grill just long enough to figure out that she didn’t want the “stressful, tough culture” of a restaurant. She begged her way into the Silver Moon Bakery on the Upper West Side and there, from the unlikeliest of sources, she mastered the art of challah.

“I was so bad at braiding I thought I was going to get fired especially because challah was one of their most important products,” she recalls. “All of the bread bakers were West African men. They were the ones who taught me how to make challah.”

Luisa Hagemeier with a friend

In 2018, Hagemeier exercised her new-found personal freedom and decided to leave New York and move to Colorado. She had learned to love the state while her daughter Andie attended CU Boulder. She planned to look for a retail space and open a bakery—until she took a class at the Small Business Development Center.

“The most important thing I learned was that I was not ready to open a business,” she says. “I needed more time in the kitchen, and I needed more time to learn about the business side of having a bakery.”

She worked for Marczyk Fine Foods for more than a year and now works for Little Man Ice Cream. In her spare time, she discovered the kitchen at JCC and negotiated an arrangement that gives her time to build Challahrado. Everything is baked to order with pick-up on Friday afternoons at the JCC. She is a one-person operation, except for the high holidays when she brings in help and closes challah orders at 100.

Challahrado and Judaism

Challarado Hearth is personal on many levels for Hagemeier.

She grew up in an orthodox synagogue and Hebrew school and felt like she “didn’t fit in.”

Now she has found a way to fit Judaism into her life choices, starting with the stand she has taken when people urge her to raise the price of her $8 classic challah.

Challah from Challahrado“I am committed to keeping it at $8 because I want people to recognize Shabbat,” she says. “It’s important that Jews acknowledge their Judaism, and if it’s having challah on Friday, that is pretty painless.

“Coming from the Upper West Side of New York, there are a huge number of Jews,” she adds. “Even people there who are not Jewish know about Jewish culture because they are exposed to Jews. In Colorado, I have met people who have not knowingly met a Jew. A huge part of my mission is to expose Denver to Jewish breads and pastries.”

Hagemeier is generous with her skills and her product. She teaches baking classes at the JCC throughout the year on Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. With her help, another generation is learning to make challah, babka, Sephardic breads, Rosh Hashanah cakes, and cookies. For Shabbat of Love, she donated challah dough to JEWISHcolorado’s Jewish Explorers and PJ Library families. Sit for an interview with her, and you will leave with a box of warm hamentaschen. Liberated from litigation, she has found joy and purpose

“I just love baking,” she says. “It makes me happy, it relaxes me. As a litigator, I had to fight for a living. Now, I make people happy for a living.”