Today, La Cocina — a San Francisco-based business incubator for low-income food entrepreneurs — is kicking off its first-ever Restaurant Week, including seven nights of special dinners celebrating the voices, talent, and food of chefs across the Bay Area. Each dinner will be hosted by a female La Cocina entrepreneur in collaboration with another local celebrated chef, and we at OpenTable are thrilled to be a partner.
In anticipation of La Cocina Restaurant Week, we talked to Jessica Mataka, who heads up communications and development for the organization. Read on for inspiration on entrepreneurship, empowering women, and celebrating community.
What’s the story behind La Cocina Restaurant Week? Why did you decide to start it?
I think it’s two-fold. One reason we wanted to host this week was to pay tribute to the incredible entrepreneurs who have graduated from our program and the impact that La Cocina has had on the Bay Area. There are now 23 brick-and-mortars that have come out of the La Cocina program, and most people don’t realize we have that many spaces.
Also, to highlight our incredible entrepreneurs who put out great product, and who, despite all of the challenges — how expensive it is, lacking resources — come into a position of ownership. We feel really strongly about the power of that and of them being leaders in community. They serve as examples for other immigrants and people of color, to expand their ideas of what they think of being possible for themselves.
Because our entrepreneurs come from low-income backgrounds, we think there’s a misconception about the quality of their food or what people should pay for it. They’re not always covered in the media the same way other chefs are. By hosting an event that pays tribute to the pride of their work, we can celebrate them for the incredible chefs that they are.
I love that La Cocina Restaurant Week overlaps with International Women’s Day (March 8). Was that intentional?
It was definitely intentional. We wanted to speak to International Women’s Day because it’s meant to celebrate a more gender-inclusive world and to provide more opportunities for women. One reason that La Cocina serves mainly women entrepreneurs is that today around 30% of business owners in San Francisco are female. That’s an increase from years’ past, but there’s still a lot of work to do there. Our program is designed to serve people who are denied access to resources and opportunities to succeed, so there’s a strong connection there.
Tell us a little bit about the programming and what people can expect from these dinners.
Each dinner is a collaboration between a La Cocina chef and another chef in the community who has either worked with that chef previously or somehow supported that chef or La Cocina. So it’s a tribute to a broader community story about lifting each other up.
They are putting together a really incredible meal, with seating for around 40 people – multi-course, really one of a kind. For example, the menu on Monday with El Buen Comer and Pizzeria Delfina — that’s a combination of two chefs coming together and creating a menu, one night to have special dinner from both of them.
Why did you decide to partner the La Cocina chefs and restaurants with other local restaurants here in San Francisco?
We wanted to have a space where two chefs of equal caliber can come together and produce a meal together. This was an opportunity to involve people who have been instrumental in the success of these entrepreneurs.
Early on, Pizzeria Delfina contracted Isabel [Caudillo, chef/owner of El Buen Comer] to make their breadsticks, and that was a big source of income for her. Craig and Annie [Stoll, owners of Pizzeria Delfina] have been mentors throughout her business’s growth, and they are big supporters of La Cocina. We can celebrate the behind-the-scenes relationship. Now Isabel is thriving here with her own brick-and-mortar restaurant in Bernal, and this is an opportunity to celebrate that.
Also, now that Isabel is operating her restaurant and can’t continue making breadsticks for them, they have passed on the opportunity to another La Cocina entrepreneur who’s in the process of growing her business.
La Cocina has been a vocal advocate of women and immigrants. What is the organization focusing on with new immigration policies being pushed in Washington?
There is a lot of stress from our entrepreneurs and restaurant owners, knowing their rights and what’s at stake under our current administration. They are definitely feeling it. As an organization we’re doing everything we can to provide them with the information they need to feel empowered, making sure they have the tools they need to address a situation should it arise.
We feel that in incubating these food businesses and propelling these women into positions of ownership, we are providing concrete examples of the value of immigrant-owned businesses. We’re showing that they are truly the fabric of our society and concrete examples of success, and showing what can happen when you create opportunities for people and lower barriers to what they are capable of doing.
People who care about food have to care about immigrants. It’s a fact that a lot of immigrants are working in the back of the house in kitchens – it’s undeniable how intertwined the issues are.
Any plans to make La Cocina Restaurant Week an annual event?
Definitely, from the beginning we have planned to do it every year, in the same week where International Women’s Day falls. And we’ll continue throughout the year as we add more brick-and-mortars to the number we have now. A lot of people know La Cocina and think what we do is awesome, but they don’t realize how expansive the impact has been.
What else is coming up at La Cocina? Any other events on the horizon?
Our F&B: Voices from the Kitchen storytelling series is an extension of the work we do year-round to highlight the voices of entrepreneurs and their stories. We’ll have a spring and a fall installment. Our themes for 2017 are race and refuge, and we’re diving into those topics with personal narratives, photo essays, film… It’s a wonderful event to be immersed in.
Right now people want to be involved and active. They want tangible ways to educate themselves and make a positive contribution to the places they’re living. By attending these events and hearing from people locally and nationally who are spending their time thinking critically about issues of race – it’s really important and a cool opportunity to learn and be part of our community.