Where Community Tops the Menu
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Scott Peterson
When Jazmin Villalta met Enrique Soriano in 2016, she had recently left an emotionally draining paralegal job with an immigration law firm and was canvassing for Amnesty International while contemplating what to do next. She noticed how Enrique always brought his heart joyfully to work.
“I would watch him go to work at Left Coast Catering and then on his days off, he was doing pop-up events as side gigs,” she says.
The relationship flourished, and in 2019, the two launched their own catering company. They called it Cocina del Corazón (Kitchen of the Heart), a name that would take on more meaning as March 2020 ushered in a new reality for caterers relying on corporate and social events to stay afloat. The duo made the big pivot to providing grant-funded meals for people who were caught in tight spots during the pandemic shutdowns.
As restrictions eased, friends urged Soriano and Villalta to go back to catering, but the two realized they were happier serving the community than they were catering parties. “We purposely choose not to go back to that because of the intention behind our work now,” says Villalta.
Food Truck to Fine Dining
The story behind Cocina del Corazón starts very early in the life of Enrique Soriano, a first-generation Mexican American whose parents came from the Mexican state of Michoacán. The family had been moving around California as his father sought work picking crops. When the boy was three, the family settled in West Oakland. Soriano describes his home as a “very Mexican household” where no one spoke English inside the house. “Even though we were in the United States, our worldview was very Mexican,” he says.
When Soriano was about 11, his parents purchased a taco truck, and the young Enrique was happy to help unload food and wash the radishes and cilantro. “As I got older, I got to cut the cilantro and onions, and as I got a little older, I was cooking all the interesting cuts of meat, like lengua and tripitas.”
Soriano’s parents worked with the Asociación de Comerciantes Ambulantes de Fruitvale (Food Truck Association of Fruitvale)* to help the health department develop regulations for legalizing food trucks, so the boy had a view of his family’s business as part of an economic community. During his summers off from school, Enrique went to stay with his relatives on their finca (ranch) in Michoacán, where he recalls his uncle cooking pigs for the pork dish carnitas. By age 18, he had made his way to culinary school, which led to jobs as a line cook in Sequoia National Park, at Delfina and Nopa in San Francisco, and at Big Sur’s Fernwood Resort. But these experiences in fine dining were tarnished by the injustices he saw going on around him.
“Young cooks who work the line for these restaurants are aspiring to learn under these great chefs, and that gets taken advantage of,” he says. “A lot of these folks are asked to come in two hours for free, to come in and prep beforehand. And they do it.” He adds that this unfair practice has been normalized in the fine-dining restaurant industry.
He was also disillusioned by the high prices. “I’m an avid believer that organic food is healing medicine for the body, but the people that need it most can’t afford it,” says Soriano.
Looking for how he might create change, Soriano started developing his own style of cooking at those pop-up gigs he was doing when he and Villalta began dating.
“I take a lot of what I learned from my aunties, mother, and grandmother and add fresh organic vegetables,” he says. “I want to present Mexican foods in a healthier, lighter way.”
Meals for the Community
When the nonprofit World Central Kitchen (WCK) started hiring caterers and restaurants to prepare free community meals in the spring of 2020, Cocina del Corazón cooked between 100 and 400 meals weekly, providing nourishment for at-risk youth, the elderly, single mothers, refugees, and the unhoused. They sourced all their produce from local BIPOC-owned farms through Mandela Partners. But in late 2021, funding dried up and WCK wound down their operations even as the basic problem of food insecurity remained.
“They left a huge hole,” says Soriano, “but they also left a working system where smaller businesses were able to benefit from both government and private grants to prepare these meals.” It was time for the next reinvention.
Villalta and Soriano learned that Cocina del Corazón could partner directly with nonprofit organizations with funding for community meals. They discovered Food Shift, the Alameda-based nonprofit that redistributes imperfect surplus food that would otherwise go unused, and arranged with that organization for weekly supplies of fresh produce and pantry items, which have helped keep the budget balanced. As Soriano works his magic with these rescued items, Cocina del Corazón is able to provide meals for a variety of grassroots community-based organizations like Homies Empowerment in East Oakland, where Cocina del Corazón delivers 100 meals every other week for the Town Fridge that’s set up out front.
“The meals go quickly,” says the organization’s caretaker of food systems and community partnerships JP Hailer. “Their food is delicious, beautiful, healthy, and culturally appropriate.”
At Hella Positive in West Oakland, where the business ReCompass provides legal medical cannabis for veterans who suffer from PTSD, Cocina del Corazón serves 100 hot meals as well as food to-go for veterans and others every other week.
Receiving Food with Dignity
During the pandemic, Soriano observed that while the fare coming from some aid organizations was adequate, it was quite plain and repetitive. “It’s not that people aren’t grateful,” he says, “but the food doesn’t do all it should do.”
When Soriano was a boy, a neighbor would get food bags from the Salvation Army and drop them off on his family’s porch. While the food wasn’t exceptional, “for us it felt like a warm boost,” he says. “We could feel the love from our neighbor Mrs. Holmes. I understand folks that are down and out and how important it is to receive meaningful aid that’s also dignified.”
In advance of any new gig, he and Villalta ask the event organizer which foods the group would enjoy. Sometimes they start with a popular dish like pasta or pizza, and then they get feedback to guide future meals. The goal, says Soriano, is food that is not just nourishing, but also comforts the heart and soul.
‘We Do This Work Out of Love’
Beyond providing meals, Villalta and Soriano want to empower community members to develop their own cooking skills and even become entrepreneurs. At two workshops held at the Unity Council’s San Antonio Senior Center in Fruitvale, they held cooking classes where seniors and teens teamed up to prepare bright meals of vegetable fajitas, strawberry cheesecake, and agua fresca. Encouraging youth, especially those who feel disenfranchised, to start businesses and start caring for the community has been rewarding.
“They can look at us and say, ‘Hey, look, there’s a couple who were raised in the hood too, and they were able to start a thriving business that feeds people good food,’” says Soriano.
Last summer, Cocina del Corazón offered an internship program with the Oakland Unified School District, in which five student chefs studied cooking skills and the basics of working in a professional kitchen. Ismael Sencion, a junior at Castlemont High, says he learned how to prepare vegetables, to sharpen his knife, and to cook with kale. “Even if you were just starting out, it was comfortable to work there.”
One future goal, says Villalta, is to create an after-school program with the school district. Another is to find more local nonprofits with funding for community meals, so she and Soriano can continue to provide sliding-scale catering that nonprofits can afford.
“That’s one of the powers you have as a small business,” says Villalta. “You get this little platform where you can stand on top and then utilize your business for the greater good. And that’s really the goal here. We do this work out of love.” ♦
Click here to read Chef Enrique's story about his mother's cooking and his recipes for Guisado al Californio and Strawberry Peach Agua Fresca
*Enrique Soriano shared these links to stories on the Asociacion de Comerciantes Ambulantes de Fruitvale and the effort to organize Oakland's food vendors, which started in 1998:
East Bay Express: The Woman Behind Oakland's Mobile Food Scene
Rachel Trachten writes about local food in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.
Photographer Scott Peterson is a man with many hats including video producer, banjoist, fiddler, and motorcycle adventurer. When he has a free moment he enjoys searching out good local food. scottpetersonproductions.com