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La Cocina: An Incubator Kitchen Where Women, Immigrants Shine

A dish made by Mamma Lamees | Jim Sullivan
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Learn how Palestinian chefs have brought people together through food on "The Migrant Kitchen" S3 E5: Man'oushe

La Cocina, or “the kitchen” in Spanish, is typically filled with busy folks cooking and stirring. Warm home-cooked smells waft over in their 2,200-square-foot kitchen in San Francisco’s Mission district.

Famous for its taquerias and Mission-style burritos, the neighborhood is also home to an incubator kitchen that give mostly women, immigrants, moms and refugees a chance to succeed as a food entrepreneur.

Since it opened in 2005, La Cocina has grown 35 food businesses and counting, in a highly competitive and male-dominated industry. Their website proudly boasts: “At La Cocina, women and people of color are owners and leaders.”

On a recent weekday, Leticia Landa, Deputy Director of La Cocina, was getting ready for their annual “F&B: Voices from the Kitchen” fundraising event that elevates storytelling and chefs’ voices, including folks outside of La Cocina, as well as La Cocina chefs.

“The more stories we can tell about immigrants making the U.S. a better place — and a more rich, and more diverse place — the better,” Landa notes.

Reem Assil preparing a dish | Jim Sullivan
Reem Assil preparing a dish | Jim Sullivan

La Cocina is not a regular entrepreneurial program. For one, it mostly lets people take their time. Graduates average five or six years in the program, although some take as little as two years to get their businesses off the ground. Ninety-five percent of participants are women; they do have the occasional man who applies, and it’s typically ones who face significant barriers to starting a business.

Lamees Dahbour and her family in La Cocina | Jim Sullivan
Lamees Dahbour and her family in La Cocina | Jim Sullivan

Several of La Cocina chefs have, in recent years, been elevated to superstar status, including Nite Yun, a Cambodian American chef behind Nyum Bai restaurant in Oakland, and Reem Assil, of Reem’s and Dyafa, both in Oakland. Nyum Bai was named of the best new restaurants in Bon Appetit of 2018; Assil was a James Beard Award semi-finalist the same year. El Buen Comer recently made Eater’s top 38 Essential San Francisco restaurants list. The accolades go on.

This past fall, several La Cocina businesses — all whom are still in the program — opened up shop as the La Cocina Cantina inside the student union on UC Berkeley’s campus, to sell Chilean empanadas, cupcakes, soul food-inspired sandwiches, Syrian food by a refugee family, Vietnamese noodles soups and more to students, staff, and anyone in the public.

More recently, they broke ground on La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, opening next year, which is a food hall of sorts in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco inside an empty post office that’s currently owned by the city. The building will eventually be slated for affordable housing, but in the meantime, women chefs will sling their fare in the space.

Most of the participants are also women of color and more than half are immigrants. The majority are also moms. Many immigrants, who often have experience as home cooks or working in restaurants, face huge economic, cultural and language barriers.

Some may not have thought about being in the food business at all, until they met someone who shared a similar background.

Karla Rosales-Barrios preparing her food | Courtesy of Karla Rosales-Barrios
Karla Rosales-Barrios preparing her food | Courtesy of Karla Rosales-Barrios

For Karla Rosales-Barrios, food is her third career. Rosales-Barrios retired from the SF Recreation & Park Department about five years ago. This fall, she launched her own salsa company, Pass the Sauced. “I’ve always loved to cook, and I love food,” she said, adding that food “creates family.” She’d been making salsa for 30 years. Rosales-Barrios, who is Nicaraguan American and grew up in San Francisco, learned a traditional Mexican salsa recipe many years ago and is influenced by the Chicano and Mexican culture and communities of San Francisco.

The nonprofit has many supporters and connections in the well-oiled SF Bay Area food scene. They work with CUESA (Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture), the famous local and tourist destination farmers market at the SF Ferry Building. In addition, they have a kiosk inside the Ferry Building, where they sell food items from their current and alumni.

Rosales-Barrios said she was nervous as she debuted her salsa for four Saturdays this September, selling her salsas in glass jars, at the bustling Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. “I’d never done anything like that,” she adds.

One of her role models is Reem Assil, who she looked up to prior to joining La Cocina. Like Assil, Rosales-Barrios sees herself as an advocate and activist. “I can bring the sum of all my parts. That’s something that La Cocina offers that’s invaluable.”

Where La Cocina shines is exactly that — building a network of women chefs, who sometimes rely on each others’ support that continues well after they graduate.

Claire Keane, Owner of Clairesquares in her production facility | Sarah Peet Photography
Claire Keane, Owner of Clairesquares in her production facility | Sarah Peet Photography

Claire Keane of Claire’s Squares joined La Cocina more than a decade ago. “It was a tight band of women, and we were all mostly in the same place in our business,” she said. “We were there to support each other.”

Keane, who is originally from Ireland, spent about five years in the program and now operates her business, which includes baked good such as Irish shortbread cookies and shortbread and caramel dark chocolate squares. Her wares are sold at the La Cocina kiosk in San Francisco’s Ferry Building as well as other shops in California, and are included as part of the seasonal gift boxes sold through La Cocina.

She recalls the type of support she receives while being in the La Cocina kitchen: “When I had trouble cooking caramel or working with chocolate, they reached out to local experts. There’s a tremendous amount of giving back from the community, who come in to La Cocina.” For example, she was able to receive guidance from Michael Recchiuti, chocolatier and founder of Recchiuti Confections, and a City College of San Francisco’s Pastry Chef Instructor Mark Hodgson.

“It was really simple but made a huge difference to get their expertise and those expert eyes,” Keane said.

Claire’s Squares is among several packaged foods from La Cocina, including Peas of Mind and Kika’s Treats. “If I hadn't gone through the program, I wouldn’t be in the business today,” she said.

Top Image: A dish made by Mamma Lamees | Jim Sullivan 

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