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Fostering Dreams in the Kitchen

La Cocina helps immigrants and low-income cooks create food businesses

Book review by Kristina Sepetys

 

We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream
By Caleb Zigas, Leticia Landa, with a foreword by Isabel Allende, photography by
Eric Wolfinger, and contributions by Yewande Komolafe; Chronicle Books, 2019

Lamees Dahbour, an immigrant from Kuwait living in San Francisco, got through some of the darker periods of her life—which included political oppression and spousal abuse—by cooking for herself, her children, and her friends. A neighbor, enchanted with the meals Dahbour prepared and shared, told her about La Cocina. Dahbour rode her bike over, applied for the program, enrolled. She now operates a successful catering business, Mama Lamees, specializing in Middle Eastern foods.

La cocina (pronounced la co-SEE-nah) means “kitchen” in Spanish. Authors Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa have been with this nonprofit incubator kitchen almost since it was founded 14 years ago in San Francisco’s Mission District. The founding objective was to provide support to low-income people of color and immigrants, primarily women, who want to build profitable food businesses. La Cocina offers an affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance, and access to market opportunities. Along with launching dozens of successful food products, restaurants, food trucks, and food stalls, the model has inspired the formation of similar kitchen incubators around the world.

The cookbook is organized as a collection of profiles and stories of more than 40 alumni who have passed through La Cocina. Each profile includes photos and a representative recipe or two that can be prepared easily at home. Enticing recipe examples include a Brazilian honey cake fragrant with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg; Filipino chicken soup made from young coconut, ginger, lemongrass, baby greens, and fish sauce; and an Iranian frittata made from a heap of bright green chopped parsley, cilantro, chives, dill, and chopped walnuts. The authors hope the stories and recipes will inspire readers to find and explore immigrant-run grocery stores and other food businesses.

The entrepreneurs and recipes included come from 17 countries, including Senegal, Vietnam, Nepal, Jamaica, Cambodia, Mexico, and El Salvador. The cookbook is a reminder of the significant contributions to culinary culture by some of the people who get little recognition or compensation, namely women, immigrants, and people of color, as well as those who identify as LGBTQ and others whose rights and achievements are often overlooked.

Among the East Bay cooks profiled is Charles Farrier, owner of Crumble & Whisk Pâtisserie, a cheesecake bakery headquartered in Berkeley that turns out beautiful, light, and flavorful cheesecakes made from organic ingredients sourced locally. Farrier sells his cakes at the Friday Old Oakland Farmers’ Market and by special order. Combinations change with the seasons but might include corn and blackberry, roasted pineapple and sage, or Madagascar vanilla bourbon. He describes his beet and berry cheesecake as “roasted organic baby beets infused with blueberries and a hint of lemon swirled in, topped with blueberry red wine reduction compote.” The cakes have developed a devoted following. ♦

This excerpt from We Are La Cocina is reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books:

Crumble & Whisk

CHARLES FARRIER
Joined La Cocina: May 2013

Photo by Eric Wolfinger from We Are La Cocina used by permission

SIX DEFINING DISHES

AGE 8: FRIED SQUIRREL My dad was a real country guy. He loved to fish and hunt, and even though we lived in Oakland, he’d bring home everything he caught and cook it. One time, I thought I was eating fried chicken but it was actually squirrel. I guess I was that weird kid who liked squirrel.

AGE 16: CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS
After my dad died, I went to live in a foster home. There were so many of us, everything we ate came from cans or the freezer. They did their best, though. They’d take chicken breasts, then cover them in cream of mushroom soup and add a bag of frozen carrots and peas. You know those biscuits that pop out of a container? They’d squish them into the soup part before baking it. We’d eat that whenever it was someone’s birthday.

AGE 18: CARROT GINGER SOUP When I got too old for foster care, I learned about Treasure Island Job Corps and enrolled in their culinary program. After so many cans and jars, I loved getting to feed people with food we made from scratch. I remember thinking carrot ginger soup was so exotic. Being in school introduced me to the world of flavor possibilities and got me hooked on experimenting.

AGE 22: BLINTZES I found a job as a cook on a cruise ship after I graduated from Job Corps. My favorite aspect of being on the boat was making breakfast. I had to make 250 blintzes every morning, and it was so satisfying to hear the sizzle of batter hit the buttery pan. Through that ship, I got to meet people from all over the world and actually see the world. I had coworkers from India, Texas, and the Philippines. A lot of people never get to leave the Bay Area even once. And here I was, going to all these countries because of cooking.

AGE 30: SALMON CAKES For the first time, I felt like I could be honest with a coworker about my sexuality. I’d gotten sick of moving around, so I came back to the Bay Area and found a job at a restaurant where one of the chefs was black and a lesbian. Together, we developed a dish with salmon that had been poached in white wine vinegar, flaked and mixed with creamy mashed potatoes, rolled in cornmeal, and fried. Maybe it reminded me of my dad, too.

AGE 33: CHEESECAKE We were having an office potluck. Potlucks are what happen when you stop working in kitchens and become an admin assistant at an office instead. They are like a once-a-month thing, if you can believe it. At one of them, a coworker challenged me to a cheesecake battle. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know I’d spent all those years as a cook. I don’t think he realized what he was getting into. So I took the formula for a New York cheesecake but added vanilla bean and bourbon. Then I swapped the graham crackers with Keebler Elves shortbread cookies that I crumbled in the food processor. Yes, I won. ♦

 

Edible East Bay book editor Kristina Sepetys is a writer and consultant living in Berkeley. Her work focuses on the intersection of food, farming, energy, land, water, and sustainable resource use. She can be reached at kmsepetys(at)yahoo.com.

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