Spring Issue 2022
A Globally-Inspired Oven: Pastries, La Pana,
and Oaxacan Pride
By Natosha Via
Every morning before dawn, Diego Hernández López arrives at a quiet and deserted Logan Street Market in Louisville, Kentucky to begin baking for the day. The waterfront city boasts a vibrant multicultural food scene and regularly earns spots on lists such as WalletHub’s “Best Foodie Cities in America” or Yelp’s “Top 100 US Restaurants.” As a fourth generation baker with a lifelong curiosity for experimentation through baking, Diego is adding to this scene one pastry at a time.
In Spanish, la pana is the shortened and casual version of la panaderia, meaning the bakery. Diego makes his way to his bakery, aptly named La Pana, which is nestled in the back of the market. His bakery is a small, one-room kitchen space where open shelves house stainless steel baking sheets and mixing bowls, and the walls are lined with tools and baking appliances. On one wall, a framed photo taken in Oaxaca hangs next to a proclamation from the mayor designating La Pana Day in Louisville. A walk-up window faces out towards Logan Street, and Diego — or any other employee — offers a friendly smile to all who pass by.
A freestanding butcher block island in the center of the room is where Diego spends most of his time. There is enough space to walk around the island, but not much more. Diego’s father impressed upon him a sense of community responsibility: a business owner must show up to work every day whether he feels like it or not, as people plan their days around a visit to the bakery. While the rest of the market storefronts are quiet and dark he turns on his radio, ties his apron behind his back, and begins his routine.
Diego is diligent and hardworking and settles easily into his rhythm. In this context, he is completely himself. He knows his recipes, his time-honored methods. Soon the sweet doughy aroma envelopes the tightly-enclosed space as a mixer kneads dough and rattles gently in the background. The warmth from the working oven invites a feeling of coziness. Diego knows no stranger, and so he willingly and readily shares the many stories of his life before landing here in Kentucky.
Diego is a fourth generation baker, un panadero, born and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico. As one of nine children, Diego and his siblings were always around the bakery. His father worked overnight and his mother sold pastries in the streets during the day. Growing up, Diego remembers watching his mother shelter his father from the rain with a plastic bag as he baked in their outdoor clay oven. The bakery eventually grew from their family home into the brick-and-mortar La Flor de Oaxaca, a bustling community staple that sold thousands of pastries from each of its four locations.
As a teenager, Diego didn’t want to follow in his parents’ footsteps. Instead, he focused on his goal of becoming a doctor, but in high school he began experimenting with drugs and quickly found they took over his life.
After spending a month and a half in rehab, Diego returned to his parents and started working in their bakery.
He traveled across Europe and found that even in unfamiliar countries, he always felt at home in a local bakery. Diego traveled frugally and always asked bakers if they needed help in exchange for places to stay.
He watched the bakers carefully, asking questions about their processes. Growing up, Diego always made croissant dough with shortening. But in Spain, he watched a baker as she folded butter into the dough using a technique he had not seen before. She encouraged him to use butter to get the flakiest layers. It took Diego three months of using this approach before he perfected his recipe, which he now knows by heart.
Once home in Oaxaca, he started a bakery of his own and began experimenting with recipes he learned abroad. From his time in Belgium, Diego grew fond of apple strudel, and from a friend in Argentina he learned how to make dulce de leche (caramelized milk), which he puts into empanadas. His signature dough is the full-butter croissant dough he learned in Spain. He integrated foreign recipes and techniques into his repertoire, combining them with traditional Oaxacan recipes. At this point, Diego knows his recipes and processes by look and feel, and he rarely references recipes or uses timers. In Oaxaca, he was taught that if he used recipes, he would not truly know the art of baking.
In 2017, Diego traveled to Louisville for a three-day visit that ultimately turned into three weeks. After hitting it off with Paco Garcia and Joshua Gonzalez, who he met through a mutual friend, Wes Lipes, Diego returned home to Oaxaca and continued on in his baking endeavors.
Two years later, in October 2019, Paco and Joshua teamed up to start FOKO: a Mexican take-away restaurant, which is also part of Logan Street Market in Louisville. FOKO’s name is derived from the Spanish word foco, meaning lightbulb. The “k” serves a subtle nod to Kentucky’s influence on their cuisine. The lightbulb represents the restaurant’s mission to “illuminate culture through food and highlight the intersection between Mexico and the American South.” Diego ended up moving to Louisville a month before FOKO opened and quickly found a spot on the team.
As a newly opened restaurant on the brink of the coronavirus pandemic, Joshua noted that the transition to intense COVID protocols was scary.
"We didn't know what was going to happen."
FOKO went from having nine people on staff to just three. Those who remained attempted to solve problems that arose as a result of ever-changing guidelines. As a business operating in a local market that was designed to be a community gathering space, FOKO needed innovative solutions.
Knowing that people would be spending more time together at home, the restaurant launched an affordable family-style menu. A month into the pandemic, staff began to notice the lack of bread on store shelves. Diego was immediately determined to remedy this dilemma by offering his expertise in baking loaves. The workers of FOKO were constantly evolving and adapting to new challenges. And there, in a tiny room in the back of FOKO, was Diego, using a Topo Chico bottle to roll his dough in place of a rolling pin. A memory is conjured,
“I saw my mom using a bottle once when we were making donuts, and she was using the top to cut out the hole of the donuts.”
Around the same time, Kaiju, a local bar, began offering a small selection of grocery items, including Diego’s loaves of bread, to help supplement revenue lost to COVID. Diego then started making Oaxacan pan dulce, a term for a variety of traditional pastries, and soon customers requested new pastries like donuts and croissants.
Little by little, Diego started to acquire more equipment in order to meet higher demands. A space formerly used for catering opened in the back of Logan Street Market, and when a nearby bakery closed for business, the owners sold a number of pieces to Diego. Everything was happening organically, forging the path for Diego to open La Pana. Now Diego supplies a case full of pastries to FOKO and bakes regularly for other restaurants and cafes as well.
Community and culture come together when Diego offers traditional Mexican and Oaxacan baked goods, both as an inclusive way to engage the Latinx community, and also to educate community members without Latinx roots. For Mother’s Day, Diego took orders for tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in a sweet milky mixture balanced with a whipped cream frosting, fittingly using his own mother’s recipe.
For Dia de los Muertos, Diego offers special orders of pan de muerto, a round sweet bread loaf with topping variations. The symbolism behind pan de muerto reflects Diego’s Oaxacan heritage.
It's in a circle form, which represents the cycle of the life and death, and it has little pieces of dough on top which represents the bones, and on the middle it has a bigger piece of dough which is the Crane. Each loaf of bread in every family symbolizes the people who are not in person. We just like to talk about them, and that’s how we keep them alive, remember how they were while they were walking, talking, and working. El pan de muerto brings the family together.
He misses celebrating Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca and, with a grin on his face, reminisces about how the holiday is so full of light and celebration. Similarly, when La Pana offered Rosca de Reyes, a King’s Day Bread, they were excited to have a large number of customers from Louisville’s Latinx community show up in support. Diego’s enthusiasm for his work is both infectious and well-known. A brewery located in Logan Street Market even crafted a beer, “Happy Diego,” in honor of bright spirit. The label features a photograph of Diego on his motorcycle, same huge grin on his face.
FOKO and La Pana employees have a strong bond to the environment they have created. They continue to work in partnership to create success for each other and success for the community. Leo, who has been working at FOKO for three months, describes Diego as
On December 5, 2021, La Pana’s ribbon cutting day, this love was made tangible by the folks who attended the ceremony in support of Diego and his efforts. He ran out of pastries before he could even make it outside to cut the ribbon and rushed to make extra batches of scones, the fastest pastry he can bake from dough to finish. Customers called through the window to him and exchanged greetings and discussions in Spanish as family and friends assisted in the kitchen.
Later on, Diego, his wife, Lisa, and their daughter, Maya, along with Joshua Gonzalez and Paco Garcia, stood in front of La Pana‘s black exterior and cut the ribbon, officially celebrating the bakery’s opening day. His mother and father-in-law, who recently moved to Kentucky, were in attendance along with many other friends from the FOKO and La Pana communities.
One night in December 2021, La Pana received an unprecedented order for 1000 pies through the LEE Initiative. On any other evening, Diego would have been at home, but all hands were on deck as a family of workers energized each other throughout the night to make this challenge a reality. Walking into La Pana is always a full sensory experience, but even more so on this night. The sweet smell of pie crust and custard rolled through the bakery. As always, the radio was playing to keep the energy moving. Diego was in a constant cycle of making new dough, rolling and cutting the dough, and baking the pies. Not far from where he stood, Paco made 70 gallons of custard filling.
Volunteers at other stations pressed the dough into the pans, filled the pies, and boxed them up. The bakery functioned like a revolving door as folks rotated in and out over the course of the day. Diego’s father-in-law showed up to assemble boxes and stayed for hours. They bought out an entire supply of milk from two stores and all the butter from another restaurant depot. By midnight, a team of seven or eight were working in rhythm, music on, with 240 pies boxed and ready to go. With such limited space available, Diego is able to bake 36 pies at a time. 27 batches were required to reach their final goal. With an air of nostalgia, Diego confesses,
“Working this late into the night makes me feel
like this is Christmas."
He looked tired, but he continued to work. The whole team paused for a late meal around one o’clock in the morning. Even under rushed circumstances where every minute counts, everyone still took care of one another. Diego’s family continued to toil well into the morning, and when they finished their order, they did so with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Diego embodies a rhythm and an ease. He scatters flour across the surface and flattens the dough into a long strip, which he cradles as he carries it from the rolling machine to the wooden countertop. Diego lovingly tends to his dough the way he tends to his community, his friends, and his family. Quietly, and without much commotion, but knowingly and in complete joy and comfort.
Every day, Diego sets aside a couple pastries from each batch so he can deliver a small box to one of his friends who has helped him on his journey. When his work is done, he diligently mops up his kitchen, turns off his radio, and unties his apron.
After early starts and long days, Diego is eager to come home to his wife and one year old daughter. He leaves everything else at the door and gives his full attention to his growing family. It is here, in Louisville, where he continues to build a community in partnership with Paco and Joshua, a community that extends the legacy of his Oaxacan baking heritage.
Natosha Via is a documentary photographer residing in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Having grown up in the region, Via has developed a slow growing love for the unique geographical and cultural crossroads of southern and midwestern life. She uses the art of photography to honor human experience with a reverence for community, stories, and life.