La Cocina’s Recipe for Immigrant Kitchen Success

It was pouring outside. The sky over Manhattan’s Union Square had opened up and a late spring, early summer thunderstorm was blanketing New York City in sporadic monsoon. As Caleb Zigas, the Executive Director of San Francisco’s La Cocina, and I made our introductions over a cup of coffee at a local hotel’s swank restaurant, Leticia Landa, the organization’s Deputy Director, and Nafy Flatley entered the room.

When I approached Caleb for an interview on the New York leg of their book tour, he had mentioned that he would be bringing one of the entrepreneurs that La Cocina had mentored along with him. And I knew her immediately. Senegal-born Nafy’s vibrant yellow dress commanded attention, a stunning floor length confection more suited for a wedding than coffee. But, on Nafy, it was exactly right. Perfectly tailored to her tiny frame, laced with intricate flowers that bore small hearts at their center, and clearly hand-made with both precision and care, it was a burst of sunshine on an otherwise colorless day. Matching the beauty of Nafy’s dress was her smile, an inviting and self-possessed grin, noticed not only by me, but also the rest of the room. Though she had yet to utter a word, anyone watching knew she was someone special.

In many ways, Nafy’s smile could be attributed to her work with La Cocina, the San Francisco non-profit that’s leveling the playing field for immigrant women interested in opening food businesses. By giving them access to commercial kitchen space, professional business advice, legit places to sell their food, and help with securing capital, La Cocina has infinitely changed the lives of all those who have walked through its doors.

La Cocina evolved out of a late 90’s, early aughts’ grass roots effort in San Francisco’s Mission District wherein existing community non-profits like the Women’s Foundation of California, the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, and the Mission Economic Development Agency were doing economic development work focused on business planning. They had found that many of the women they were working with had food business plans, but they weren’t launching and attributed that to a lack of affordable commercial kitchen space. With community demand from these informal entrepreneurs for a pathway to formalization, La Cocina realized they could, perhaps, meet that demand.

Food, in all its beautiful forms, is a unifier, both around tables and around cultures. At a time in our political history when the immigrant is being questioned, both literally and figuratively, La Cocina’s sweeping cookbook, We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream, is perfectly timed. It traces the growth of an organization founded on the same principles as our country — believing that everyone within its borders deserves a fair shot – and spreading that message through the poignant, emotional stories of immigrant cooks and their prized recipes.

Dilsa Lugo, chef/owner of Los Cilantros.
Dilsa Lugo's Sopes.

With over 75 recipes from more than 40 successful La Cocina alumni, the book is not only a guide to the massive canon of ethnic cooking, but also a culinary anthology of the immigrant experience. Whether you’re reading about Dilsa Lugo’s trip from Cuernavaca to Berkeley with her husband as a pregnant bride, or how she fell in love with Alice Waters’ ethos and started Los Cilantros, a Michelin-recommended restaurant, making her sopes becomes a little bit more intimate. You can’t help but root for her to meet Waters one day (and cry with glee when you see Alice Waters post about that meeting on her Instagram page!).

Isabel Caudillo of El Buen Comer.
Isabel Caudillo's Mole Verde con Puerco.

It’s hard not to envision Estrellita’s Snacks’ Maria del Carmen Flores’ 13 grandchildren — who only speak English because of her – enjoying her pupusas. Simmering Isabel Caudillo’s mole verde con puerco will prove why former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Kauffman called her El Buen Comer “the best Mexican restaurant to open in San Fran in 20 years.”

Guadalupe Guerrero of El Pipila with her daughter..
Beans with chiles, one of Guadalupe's comida de pobreza, or foods of poverty.

When there’s nothing in the cupboard you might be inspired by Guadalupe Guerrero of El Pipila, who shares comida de pobreza, or foods of poverty. Recipes like beans and chiles, charred tomatillos and tortillas, bananas and bread illustrate the struggle that often comes with not only the immigrant experience, but that of starting your own business. But in order to truly celebrate the arc of book, and all of its talented entrepreneurs, it’s essential to go back to La Cocina’s beginnings.

Enter Caleb Zigas, a tall, affable, sandy-haired, white guy working in restaurants in D.C. and San Francisco. Passing through L.A., Mama’s Hot Tamales, a non-profit restaurant in MacArthur Park that was backed by the city and teaching street vendors how make a legal living, caught Zigas’ eye. Inspired by the Mama’s Hot Tamales model, when Zigas landed in San Fran looking for social justice work, he stumbled on a Craig’s List ad for La Cocina.

An unlikely candidate to run a women’s organization, Zigas’ initial inquiries to work for La Cocina were ignored. But through social connections, Caleb happened to know La Cocina’s kitchen manager and snagged an interview with Valeria Perez-Ferreiro, the organization’s original director. By this point, the framework was done, the space was built, and the organization already had the first round of capital, but didn’t have anyone to open the kitchen doors at 6AM each day! Zigas volunteered. Having done both microfinance and restaurant work, Zigas was confident he could bring value to the organization. Hired as a full-time employee a year later, now the organization’s Executive Director, Zigas chuckles at the trajectory.

In 2008, Leticia Landa joined the team. She had always been interested in social justice work, particularly women’s issues, and loved food. Thinking she would go into “international development or some sort of hunger-related work after college,” a fellowship at Hispanics in Philanthropy, an organization dedicated to funding Latino-led and Latino-serving non-profits, placed her in a chance meeting with Valeria at a party. “I knew I wanted to volunteer. Spanish was my first language, and I thought I would be able to help in some way,” explained Landa. She got the job and, like Caleb, hit the ground running.

As La Cocina began to grow, moving from catering to farmers’ markets in the 2000’s, the game changed. “The farmer’s market scene was a specific place, there was a specific entrepreneur that they were focused on,” explained Zigas. “There wasn’t a lot of opportunity and like with most places, you had to know someone to be considered, and we just didn’t have those relationships.” Unsolicited applications wound up on big, bureaucratic piles and while La Cocina tried to place their entrepreneurs into Alemany Market, California’s first municipally managed farmer’s market, the hurdles felt insurmountable.

Veronica Salazar, the original La Cocina entrepreneur, of El Huarache Loco.
Veronica Salazar's Caldo de Gallina.

When Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco was finally accepted into the market, a door opened. Soon, there were three vendors selling their food and establishing a track record of success, opening more doors. “The model that La Cocina has built is as this umbrella brand that leverages and open doors. We then funnel our talent and entrepreneurs through. When they execute at a really high level, it opens more doors,” Zigas said.

When Veronica opened her first restaurant, more doors. Following her through every one of those stages, her success led to more opportunities for others working in the La Cocina kitchen. But, of course, as with the launch of any business, there were challenges, and these challenges were compounded by being an immigrant. They were compounded again by being an immigrant woman.

Nafy Flatley of Teranga.
Nafy Flatley's Peanut Stew.

Nafy Flatley came to the United States for the American Dream. “I came here for school. To have a better life for myself after graduating high school in Senegal and I started living the American Dream after college. I had a marketing job, got married and thought this was the way I will live my life. But very suddenly, things collapsed — my son was born preemie and I had to stay home to take care of him,” Nafy explained. Hiring a nanny and going back to the work force wasn’t an option and relying on her husband’s salary alone was tough, so after discussion with her mother about working for herself, her business, Teranga, was born.

Nafy had heard about La Cocina while watching television during her college finals, a program highlighting an organization that was helping female immigrants. “It was just something I saw, something I didn’t pay attention to too much. I remember it vividly, but at the time, it wasn’t something for me,” she said.

But after she realized her new life would have to change to accommodate motherhood, she remembered that program. “I just couldn’t remember the name of the organization,” she laughed. Undeterred, Nafy took to driving about the Mission with her son in the back seat, trying to locate the non-profit that could possibly provide a platform for her to launch her own business. Her first stop was the immigration office that originally helped her get to the United States; they directed her to MEDA (Mission Economic Development Agency), another dedicated non-profit helping immigrants in the Mission. There, she registered for a class, and at its second meeting, she wound up in conversation with her teacher. He had the answer she was searching for: La Cocina! After helping her create a business plan – her first – he helped her register for La Cocina’s upcoming orientation.

“When I walked in the doors of La Cocina for the first time, I felt something. You know, those things that you feel? I felt this is a place I’m not only going to be walking into once. I really really felt that. That connection. I said to myself, I’m not going to ignore this feeling.” By the end of orientation, Nafy Flatley had applied to be an entrepreneur at La Cocina. Nafy beamed sharing her story.

While Nafy’s experience was relatively straightforward, it’s not just press or word of mouth that bring in La Cocina’s recruits. Zigas explained that’s not enough to effectively recruit the kind of participants that La Cocina intends to work with. “You run this risk of only serving people who are either competent enough or powerful enough to come to you. There’s a tipping point for organizations where if there are so many competent people who have found you, it becomes even harder to tell the people who don’t feel that way that this is a place for them, too.”

La Cocina is currently battling that perception. Much press has focused on Nite Yun of Nyum Bai — named an Eater Young Gun and included on Bon Appetit’s 2018 Hot 10 list – and Reem’s Assil Reem, who opened Dyafa in 2018 with power chef Daniel Patterson. Both La Cocina graduates are a part of the fabric and community of organization’s work but are not 100% representative of the larger kitchen, Zigas explained. “We have to give voice to everyone and let people know that if you don’t aspire to be a James Beard Award semifinalist, this is still very much a place for you.”

Immigrants are ten times more likely to start a business than Americans, but being in a new country, surrounded by a new language, a new culture, and new streets, presents many learning curves. On top of that, needing a formal business plan to create a business is daunting for anyone. That stress is not an immigrant thing, it’s a human thing, but for many immigrant businesses, it can be the deciding factor in declining to formalize with La Cocina. As Nafy put it, there’s the rationalization that “if I don’t formalize, it’s ok. I can do it from home; friends and family can buy from me. Having to go to that extra level where you actually have to get licenses, buy insurance, when you are not from that country and not used to how that system works, it’s very scary.”

“Coming to the United States as an immigrant, you’ve already gone through so much paperwork, visas, and things like that, and then to hear you have more paperwork to start a business. You think to yourself, ‘I’d rather not have to do that again.’ But organizations like La Cocina will tell you, ‘we are here to help you; we are here to make it easier. We have volunteers to brainstorm names, find logos. Four different options.’ And I think to myself, ‘four different options?’ I was hoping for one! All of those things made me want to formalize and they helped me do it where it wasn’t so scary.”

If you had money, you would pay for these things. So much of the entrepreneur population takes this for granted,” Landa pointed out. “And, if you have social capital, you ask your friends,” added Zigas. “La Cocina is trying to bridge the gap between privilege and power. It’s not enough to say you can have access to my privilege if you come to me, you have to really legitimately believe that I’m willing to shed my privilege, engage in discomfort in order to further spread what privilege and power looks like. That takes time. If the organization isn’t looking to invest that time or that humility, that shedding of power, it’s very hard to be sincere.”

In many cases, formalization more takes time. Landa remembers Mariko of Aedan Fermented Foods’s first visit to La Cocina. “Her friends dragged her by the skin of her teeth, telling us about her miso. I met with her on and off for two years, calling her and checking in. She wasn’t sure she wanted to formalize. She was doing it out of her home, her kids were young. I connected her to Koji [Koji Kanematsu, Onigilly] because I knew he would be able to communicate with her in Japanese. It was a slow, slow process.” Another example, Lamees Dahbour of Mama Lamees, was a two-year process from when Landa first went to dinner in her apartment to when she was ready to apply. “She was coming from a place of being a single mom, being divorced as a very devout Muslim woman, and not knowing that she could start her own business,” said Landa.

Though We Are La Cocina couldn’t possibly fit all the stories of the incubator and entrepreneurs within its pages, all have a familiar thread, that of family. In terms of immigrant kitchens, the reliance on trustworthy people usually falls to blood relatives. Alongside the recipes, there are stories of patient spouses, impatient children, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, all pitching in to create a viable family business. There’s a sense of duty and responsibility instilled in these stories, but in some, there’s also a sense of resentment.

“We talk about that a lot with Dayana Salazar, Veronica’s [of El Hurache Loco] daughter,” said Zigas at a recent booksigning where Dayana was present. “Her brother hasn’t seen the same progression of Veronica’s business.” Dayana playfully shared stories of pulling her brother out of bed on farmers’ market mornings, calling him ‘salty.’” “My brother doesn’t always understand this is just what we do in our family,” said Dayana.

Many of the entrepreneurs’ children are also facing a political status that creates its own friction, perpetuating a paranoia that an absent parent can’t quell. “I’m DACA,” explained Dayana, “and having the support of La Cocina has been important. Being an immigrant can be hard, it’s scary all the time; you don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve learned that you can’t stop, gotta keep pushing. That’s something that my mom taught me through her work with La Cocina.”

For a lot of the young kids who have parents in the La Cocina program, there is a stretch of time where they feel like they lose their parents to the business. But asked about some of the metrics that predict success, Zigas and Landa agree: “I don’t think there are a lot of them, but the support of some kind of family is essential,” said Zigas.

Even with the support of family, entry into La Cocina’s program can be daunting. “It was amazing but intimidating. I mean, using a commercial dishwasher, to begin with. Learning to be more formal with the customers. We often served to friends and family in the past. We now have a place in Marin, and it’s bougie, so we have to adapt to a different customer and be more formal with our identity and our presence online,” Dayana explained.

Inside the kitchen at La Cocina.

Nafy echoed Dayana’s sense of initial overwhelm. “The big burners, oh my goodness! But for me, it was measuring. I just measure with my eyes. That day, I had to learn how to actually measure ingredients. To tell the truth, that made my recipe better.”

Dayana laughed at a similar memory. “Oh man, doing the recipe for the cookbook, it was hard for my mom. We do everything by eye. My mom would ask me while cooking ‘Are you watching?’ and I would think to myself ‘Wait, you’re going really fast.’ It was hard to learn to measure and scale and write formal recipes because it’s just not what we do. Or how we cook.”

Being that so many recipes in We Are La Cocina are passed down recipes, rife with backstory and cultural history attached, the process of getting a book deal to tell these stories, and not just share recipes, wasn’t easy. The La Cocina team recalls writing a proposal for a cookbook nearly a decade ago, but the timing wasn’t right. “We owe a lot of credit to Jonah Straus, our agent,” said Zigas. “He showed up out of nowhere, relentlessly emailed us, took us out to fancy restaurants. He was really interested in making the book we wanted to make.”

The La Cocina team asked their entrepreneurs, “What meal takes you back home?” From there, the recipes flowed and a book that encompassed both La Cocina’s food and immigrant history started to take shape. For Nafy, her peanut sauce recipe embodied home. It was the last meal she had in Senegal before she came to the U.S.. Surprisingly, for Veronica, the huarache entrepreneur that paved the way, that question’s answer wasn’t a huarache. It was caldo de gallina, a typical Mexican hen soup, which is the book’s first recipe.

Hurdles aside, the entrepreneurs are incredibly proud of We Are La Cocina. They’ve created something rich and useful, full of culture and history – both individual and shared. “Did you see my picture in the book?” Nafy asked, beaming. “My sister called me the other day, and said, ‘you’re a star now!’ I never thought my picture would live in a book or on the Internet forever where my great great great grandkids can see it!”

“What I love about La Cocina,” Nafy continued, “is that they picked all of the entrepreneurs in that book by knowing in their heart that we had the talent. We don’t see it personally — as immigrants, we just know we know how to cook — but the La Cocina team sees past our food, and sees us, each one of us, from a different point of view.”

These days, La Cocina has plenty of word of mouth, but they recruit by going to events, doing orientations, and talking to other non-profit organization’s staff, making sure people know how they do what they do. “Conversations with staff at organizations like MEDA, which led Nafy to La Cocina, is so important, because it’s intentionality with places like that which helps people know about us,” said Landa.

Though there’s no real cap on the number of entrepreneurs at any given time, and the kitchen is open to all qualified entrepreneurs, there are currently 30-35 entrepreneurs, and most days find four to five in the kitchen together, as all of the La Cocina businesses grow at different speeds. “We’ve exited more businesses more rapidly because we have an abundance of opportunities,” said Zigas.

Graduation from La Cocina is defined as economic or operational self-sufficiency, and many of the businesses that La Cocina has mentored have gone on to incredible success, from becoming James Beard Award finalists to Chronicle Rising Star Chefs, with many of its restaurants being included on best lists large and small. Since 2005, one of the benchmarks for success of La Cocina, itself, has been The Chronicle 100 list, aka the best 100 restaurants as chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2019, six La Cocina businesses made that list: Bini’s Kitchen, El Buen Comer, El Pipila, Nyum Bai, Reem’s, and Minnie Bell’s.

Success has never tasted as sweet.