The Food Business Incubator That Helps Immigrant Women Pursue The American Dream

June 16, 2019

“La Cocina” means “the kitchen” in Spanish. It’s also the name of a business incubator based in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since it began in 2005, it’s been helping local food entrepreneurs, many of whom are low-income immigrant women, develop their small businesses.

Over the years, many of its alumni have found success: More than 50 chefs in its program have become self-sufficient business owners, and many of them have opened their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. Two alumnae of its culinary program, Nite Yun and Reem Assil, were even recognized as semi-finalists for prestigious James Beard awards.

A new cookbook, We are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream, tells some of their stories.

Executive director Caleb Zigas says the non-profit La Cocina grew out of two grassroots economic development organization who found many people cooking at their homes and selling food on the streets. The vendors needed an affordable commercial kitchen space and technical assistance in order for their businesses to be legally viable. La Cocina provided just such a space, in addition to helping them develop business plans, pull city permits and more.

Zigas says as many as eight businesses can work in the kitchen space at La Cocina at any one time. Some can prep for a farmer’s market sale, corporate catering gigs or weddings, while others might be making and packaging their food products.

“It’s just an incredible and exciting range of techniques, flavors, perspectives, age, language. And that’s a really beautiful thing,” he says. “But I think we would be doing a disservice to reality of the space if we also didn’t talk about how tense that can be, to have that many people from different places in the world come together, certainly with a shared purpose.”

Later this year, La Cocina plans to open a marketplace in the Tenderloin District.

Twice a year, La Cocina hosts “F&B: Voices from the Kitchen,” a storytelling project where their chefs can tell their own stories, as they do in the new cookbook. Some of the chefs will be on tour to promote the book, whose proceeds will go to support La Cocina entrepreneurs.

NPR caught up with several La Cocina chefs, who shared their stories:

Mariko Grady, Aedan Fermented Foods

At La Cocina, you can often hear Mariko Grady singing or humming as she prepares miso, koji, and amasake. Her fermented products comes in four different flavors, including mushroom and chicken, to be used in soups and sauces. She originally brought the fermenting rice and Barley koji seeds from Japan, where she had a 30-year career as a singer and dancer with the prestigious modern theatrical dance group she founded, Pappa Tarahumara. They performed around the world, and 16 years ago, had a one-night show in San Francisco. The man who would become her husband was in the audience. She soon joined him in San Francisco, often returning to Tokyo to rehearse. But after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, her company disbanded. “It was very difficult to get enough money from the government, ” she says, “and every member of the company decided to reset their life.” Grady focused on nourishing her family and creating a line of fermented products that she sells online, at local Bay Area stores and at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. She began at La Cocina in 2012 and named her business after her son, Aedon. (Written in Kanji characters, the name means “wisdom” and “handed down from generation to generation.”) Grady says she listens to her body carefully – both when to perform and when to make miso. Her fermented products are “also full of wisdom about how to relate to nature and how to create a healthy life,” she says.

Aisan Hoss And Mehdi Parnia, Oyna Natural Foods

In post-revolutionary Iran, authorities can prosecute someone for any form of dancing they deem “indecent” or “immoral.” So from the age of 12, Aisan Hoss had to dance in private studios, and Mehdi Parnia had to listen to his favorite band, Metallica, only in secret. They fell in love as teenagers in Tehran, and moved briefly to London so she could study dance freely. They returned to Iran, where she ran a popular underground dance studio, but ultimately, they decided to leave their family and friends behind for a new life in California. Parnia came up with the idea for them to start a business making Iranian kukus — fritatas packed with fresh herbs and vegetables, with egg as a binder. They’re served with pickles, tomatoes, sauces and dips. Three years ago, Hoss and Parnia launched their business, Oyna Natural Foods, through La Cocina. Now, they have kukus stands at Bay Area farmers markets. Oyna, incidentally, is the Iranian verb meaning “to dance.”

Rosa Martinez, Origen

While cleaning houses and babysitting for families in San Francisco, Rosa Martinez dreamed of opening her own restaurant. For now, you can find her at La Cocina, cooking chilito de puerco and other delicacies from her native Oaxaca. Martinez grew up in a rural Mexican village in Oaxaca, where her father worked mining stones from the river. Her mother sold homemade tamales and other food in the town plaza. Martinez left to study in Acapulco, then moved to Texas. She says she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border several times to care for her ailing father and mother and to bring her American-born children to meet them. Her final crossing was the most harrowing. Martinez remembers being crammed into a big truck’s hidden metal box, with 20 other people. “It was really, really scary. We could not move,” she recalls. There wasn’t much air to breathe. “I thought I was going to die.” Someone next to her fainted, and then a man offered her a sip of blue Gatorade. “It was a miracle,” she says, adding that since then, she’s had other miracles: getting her green card, then her U.S. citizenship, and buying a home in San Francisco. Martinez started at La Cocina in 2016 and now caters and sells her food at farmer’s markets while she saves up for her own restaurant one day.

Shani Jones, Peaches Patties

Shani Jones is a native San Franciscan. Her father was born in New Orleans, her mother, in Jamaica. She says their home was always filled with a variety of spices and dishes like jerk chicken and Jamaican patties – savory pastries filled with beef or chicken. Jones says she learned to cook from her mother, whose nickname was Peaches. After returning from college in Atlanta, Jones earned her MBA in organizational leadership and management while driving a LYFT car. She often told passengers about her idea of opening a catering company with her mom’s recipes. They steered her to La Cocina, where she developed her own business, named after her mother. Five years later, she caters and runs a kiosk at a small food cooperative in Bernal Heights, where some of her handmade patties have an Ethiopian twist, “because my husband is Ethiopian.” Jones has big aspirations for Peaches Patties: “The ultimate goal,” she says, “is to be the patty kingpin of the West Coast.”

Nina Gregory edited this story for radio; Maria Godoy edited it for digital.

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