LA COCINA ALUMS LAUNCH
EAST BAY BUSINESSES
BY SARAH HENRY
The incubator kitchen in San Francisco’s Mission District known as La Cocina has garnered well deserved praise for kick starting the culinary careers of many low-income edible entrepreneurs, primarily women of color from immigrant communities. To date, the nonprofit program, which provides technical assistance, business support, and industry connections, has helped 38 edible entrepreneurs; 15 have graduated and opened their own food enterprises. The hosts behind the wildly successful summertime San Francisco Street Food Festival, La Cocina has served as a breeding ground for Love & Hummus dips, Larkspur Landing Mexican restaurant El Huarache Loco, and La Luna cupcakes.
Now comes word about three recent graduates—each with their own cultural culinary chops—currently opening food ventures in the East Bay.
Guisell Osorio, Sabores del Sur
Before Christmas 2003, Guisell Osorio was basically broke. So she decided to make cookies for family and friends as holiday gifts, staying up all night to bake alfajores, those soft, delicate, caramel-sweet treats from South America. Osorio immigrated to Walnut Creek from Santiago, Chile at the age of 17. She missed her favorite foods from her home country and so she cooked them herself. “It’s long been a dream of mine to open my own restaurant serving Chilean food the way I want it but couldn’t find here,” says Osorio, a former social worker whose dream is now a brick-and-mortar reality.
And it all began with Osorio’s buttery shortbread-like bites, filled with a generous dollop of dulce de leche and dusted with powdered sugar. “No one makes alfajores like my grandmother’s. I had to learn to make my own, which are adapted from her recipe,” says Osorio, whose alfajores got a nod in our Summer 2010 story on local cookies of quality.
Given the positive reception to her edible presents, Osorio decided to launch a catering business, Sabores del Sur (“Flavors from the South”), selling savory empanadas along with alfajores. “I’d deliver cookies to customers’ doorsteps,” she says, “some people would buy them right out of the trunk of my car.” In 2005, while at Oakland’s Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, which for many years helped launch East Bay food businesses, Osorio attended a presentation about La Cocina. It felt like just the right fit: She became the nonprofit’s first applicant and one of their first clients.
La Cocina helped Osorio build her brand and secure a small business loan, and gave her tips on how to package and market her product, which has developed a loyal following. In the East Bay, her cookies are sold at Whole Foods, the San Ramon farmers’ market, The Spanish Table in Berkeley, and La Furia Chalaca in Oakland.
On April 17, which coincides with Osorio’s 44th birthday, she opened her new restaurant in Walnut Creek. In addition to meat and chicken empanadas and sweet pastries, Sabores del Sur the café serves Chilean sandwiches filled with beef and avocado and her homeland’s version of Shepherd’s Pie. And alfajores, always alfajores.
Sabores del Sur
3003 Oak Rd, Ste 105, Walnut Creek
Dilsa Lugo, Los Cilantros
When Dilsa Lugo moved to Berkeley from Cuernavaca, Mexico in 2003, she was dismayed by the lack of authentic, tasty Mexican fare available here. So she decided to launch her own catering company, Los Cilantros. She used local, seasonal, organic ingredients to craft handmade tortillas, tacos, and tamales, along with made-from-scratch salsas and ceviche like she used to have at home, where her family grew a lot of their own food.
Lugo began taking classes at the Bread Project, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that helps aspiring cooks find employment in the food industry, and that organization put her in touch with La Cocina. The community kitchen program helped her land a couple of days in the kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, a 4-month internship at Italian restaurant A16 in San Francisco, and a sous chef position at Joanne Weir’s Copita in Sausalito, a Mexican restaurant where she cooked for 14 months. “My carnitas were one of the restaurant’s bestsellers,” says Lugo, proud of her popular pork dish.“That was such a great learning experience for me. It gave me the confidence to have my own place.”
She is full of kind words for La Cocina. “The people at La Cocina are incredibly caring and supportive. They believe in you and that helps you believe in yourself,” says Lugo, who had always wanted to own a café serving a menu reflective of the kind of dishes she knows from Mexico. “It’s incredibly hard work to run your own food business, but they do everything they can to help you make it happen. They really want you to succeed.”
Following a kitchen remodel, Lugo, 39, is slated to open her cafe in the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley on May 1. On the menu for breakfast: dulce de leche-filled churros, huevos rancheros con chorizo, and molletes, a sardine sandwich. Lunch offerings include tortas, tomales, and chile rellenos. And her carnitas, of course. “La Peña is a perfect fit for me. And Berkeley is a great place to launch my business; a lot of people here travel and are open to trying food from other places,” she says. “I’m looking forward to introducing new customers to my Mexican food.”
La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
Dionne Knox, Zella’s Soulful Kitchen
California-raised Dionne Knox grew up cooking alongside her grandmother, Zella, a professional chef and stellar home cook known for making everything from scratch. Zella grew her own produce, raised chickens for eggs, put up preserves, baked bread, and even churned her own butter. “She was one of the original DIYers,” says Knox, who lives in East Oakland. It’s a legacy that Knox honors in her own catering business featuring handcrafted soul food using seasonal and local ingredients.
Knox, 41, worked for several years in youth development in the nonprofit sector, but she made time to throw dinner parties serving her signature Southern-style comfort food with a healthful Cali twist. Knox also learned about La Cocina through the Women’s Initiative, where she had received help launching her catering business called Zella’s Soulful Kitchen. She teamed up with La Cocina in 2006, took a two-year hiatus to run a youth café in Oakland, and then went back to catering around the time Whole Foods approached La Cocina about teaming up with their clients. Today, several La Cocina businesses, including Zella’s Soulful Kitchen, provide food for the stores’ hot bars. Knox’s specialty: quality vegetable side dishes such as spinach au gratin and corn succotash.
Meanwhile, Mandela Foods Cooperative, a worker-owned grocery store in West Oakland, approached La Cocina about finding a caterer to run its deli counter. Knox was delighted to seize that opportunity too; at press time she was expected to open in May. The matchup makes sense. “Their philosophy and mine are in line in terms of providing access to healthy food in an urban food desert and working with young people,” she says. Knox makes farm-fresh recipes with a Southern regional spin, such as grain salads, roasted cauliflower with chard, blackened chicken, shrimp po’ boys with remolade, and mac & cheese. “My motto is getting people eating around the table, and if some of my prepared foods can help make that happen, then I’m happy to be part of a family’s meal.” Building on her earlier work, Knox plans to incorporate a youth education component to her business. “It’s important to give young people not just job skills but also entrepreneurial education so they can find ways to be self supporting and learn the ins and outs of running a business,” she says. “I took a shot launching my own company and I couldn’t be happier.” •