Ten jobs into my worldwide food odyssey and I’ve already enjoyed some truly remarkable culinary experiences. With no professional training, I’ve brewed my first commercial beer, cooked my first taster menu, and baked bread and faggots with those nice boys off the telly. None of this, however, compares with my time at La Cocina – a San Francisco incubator kitchen, that against all the odds has successfully helped a number of low-income women immigrants cultivate a fantastic food business.
My aim was always for the Foodish Boy project to act as a gateway to local culture and communities. Nowhere to date was this more the case than at La Cocina, where my week began with a walk through the restaurant’s local area – the Mission District. From the 1950s onwards, the Mission welcomed many a Central and South American worker, resulting in today’s distinctive Latino character. Because of this, a number of informal and ‘illegal’ food businesses sprang up to serve a taste of home to the multi-ethnic community. The barriers to becoming a legitimate food business were too great. La Cocina was born in this context. If, given the right resources, the many informal home restaurants were helped to become sustainable, legal businesses, it would not only be of benefit to the businesses themselves, but also to their families, their community and the city as a whole. The food that has come out of La Cocina since 2005 reflects this aspiration.
La Cocina’s message is one of equality. At the heart of their work is the belief that everyone deserves an opportunity to do something they love. Launching a food business is hard work at the best of times, and plenty of restaurants fail within their first few years. La Cocina has a number of additional barriers to overcome: Money- The average food start-up in the US costs $750,000 to launch: La Cocina does it with just $5,000. Sexism and a divergent set of rights for men and women in the industry is another limiting factor- Men own 70% of food businesses and 24% of women earn less money in the same culinary role as men. Linguistic communication also plays a part – 19 different languages are spoken in the incubator kitchen. It is therefore even more astounding that in 2012 La Cocina helped 39 businesses generate $3.35M in revenue. These were 100% low-income, 97% women, and 72% immigrants.
I spent my week at La Cocina focused on assisting the businesses in incubation to prepare for a preview night of their signature event, the SF Street Food Festival on 16th August. Stepping into the La Cocina kitchen was like walking into an alchemist’s lair. Strange and exotic ingredients greeted me at every turn. Huge pots of tough meat joints simmered in dark and spicy marinades until they were soft enough to fall off the bone. Bands of young women wrapped masa in leaf wrappers ready for steaming. In the corner, Soepa, a Tibetan man, rolled delicate turkey momos dumplings – an American take on a Nepali staple. I could have spent a year alone learning the secrets of La Cocina’s many mysterious offerings.
As the evening of the preview night slowly approached, excitement mounted in the kitchen. This was the moment to show what they could do under the watchful gaze of a selection of US food based media. Normally one to seek out the spotlight, I was happy to take a back seat for a change and spend the day running food back and forth between the front and back kitchens. At one stage, temptation got the better of me and I found myself picking at leftovers on an abandoned plate (I’m not sure this was acceptable etiquette, but it was definitely worth it).
As the night progressed, it turned out that I need not have been so greedy. La Cocina were so overwhelmed by the number of volunteers that I was informed I could finish off my last few tasks and enjoy the final 30 minutes sampling some of the food on offer. Before long I was tucking into everything from Azalina’s spicy Malaysian food to Hella Vegan’s inventive beetroot and kale doughnut burger. At the end of the night and my time with La Cocina I felt incredibly privileged to have spent time in the company of such amazing women. Empowerment has never tasted so good.
La Cocina’s Street Food Festival starts with a night market this coming Friday. More information about the festival and La Cocina can be found here.
Finally, here’s a video by Jim Choi about two inspiring businesses I had the pleasure of learning about during my time at La Cocina.