Earlier this month OpenTable was a proud sponsor of La Cocina Restaurant Week, which gathered graduates of La Cocina’s culinary entrepreneurship program and Bay Area chefs alike to partner in hosting seven nights of interactive meals. From a Cambodian rice feast to a Festa Della Donna celebration, the dinners celebrated the distinct cultures, backgrounds, and talents that make up San Francisco’s restaurant scene today.
We asked three participating chefs — Nite Yun of Emeryville’s Nyum Bai, Sophina Uong of the upcoming Mestiza Taqueria, and Madison Montono of Pizzeria Delfina — for their top takeaways from the event. Nite and Sophina cooked and co-hosted the Cambodian-themed dinner, while Madison partnered with Chef Isabel Caudillo of El Buen Comer on a meal celebrating the flavors and traditions of both Italy and Mexico. Here’s a taste of the inspirations, lessons learned, and relationships forged along the way.
It all starts with the basics. Asked for the inspiration behind their dinner, Nite and Sophina both had the same answer: rice. “I wanted to show the many versatile forms and delicious uses of the humble rice grain eaten everyday by the Khmer people,” Sophina added.
We’re more alike than we are different. One La Cocina grad previously worked at Delfina, and during his time there he also learned more about cooking Mexican food. Together, Madison said, they realized how similar the two cuisines are. “They use a lot of the same ingredients,” she said. She was excited to create a menu that was true to Pizzeria Delfina, true to La Cocina, but still felt like a cohesive experience.
Food is a family affair. Both Sophina and Nite were inspired by dishes their families prepared for them growing up: Sophina’s Khmer elders cooked for her, while Nite’s mom shared her culture through the kitchen. Family and culture are undeniably threaded throughout these cooking experiences. In preparation for the La Cocina Restaurant Week dinner, Madison spent time with Isabel’s family and built a personal relationship with them. “It made me realize how much I like her food, her space, and how much I enjoyed being in her presence,” she said. “That’s the type of restaurant I want to spend my money at.”
Perseverance pays off. Sophina was struck by the hard work and determination she recognized in Nite, adding that Nite “embodies the spirited energy and perseverance it takes to be successful in today’s restaurant climate of staff shortages.”
We have plenty to learn from our peers. All of the chefs we spoke with had taken away something valuable from their experience cooking with someone else. Nite says she was reminded to “be proud and have fun.” Added Sophina, “Working with her reminded me why I like cooking in different kitchens and cuisines, so I can continually learn, discover new flavors, and be constantly challenged to better my culinary arsenal as a chef.”
Hospitality doesn’t end with guests. Learning isn’t limited to new flavors, ingredients, or techniques, either. Madison says that Chef Isabel “prepared for me and my staff things she wasn’t even serving that she was proud of and wanted to showcase and let us experience.” That level of hospitality, pride, and generosity made a mark. “I’ve been back to El Buen Comer twice since our dinner,” Madison says.
Many thanks to all who made La Cocina Restaurant Week a success!
Photo Credit: Luke Beard