La Cocina  — known for its ability to break down cultural barriers through food and for aiding low-income food entrepreneurs in their journey to sustainability — drew many fresh faces to its fourth annual Food and Entrepreneurship Conference  Sun/18. The conference wrapped up a busy weekend for the organization, which also hosted the fifth annual San Francisco Street Food Festival  Sat/17.
The all-day conference, held at SOMArts Cultural Center, was a mixing bowl of talented women cooks, curious food-business pioneers, new volunteers, and delicious food. Needless to say, the atmosphere was buzzing.
The theme was centered around work, women, and food. Three panels throughout the day featured business owners, food writers, and urban food-access coordinators, who discussed their inspirations for cooking, how to catch a food writer’s attention, and how to provide affordable food to urban landscapes, among other topics.
Carlos Rivera, director of Radio Laser Los Angeles , a family-centered Latino radio station based in Los Angeles, said he came to soak up La Cocina’s mission and hopes to spread it in the LA area.
"We’re discovering what they’re doing here. The most important thing is culture," he said, adding that the LA area would benefit tremendously from La Cocina’s services. "There is a division of culture. We [Los Angeles] will need three or four La Cocinas. Thousands of people come to these seminars, but only a few catch the idea — culinary culture with fresh, healthy foods."
The sharing of cultures is one goal that La Cocina and the businesses within it hit dead-on. It’s certainly true of Chiefo Chukwudebe, chef and owner of Chiefo’s Kitchen , with wares available at La Cocina's Ferry Building kiosk, among other locations .
Chukwudebe spoke at the event about her culinary journey and her inspirations. She specializes in home-cooked Nigerian dishes like grilled suya chicken ("marinated in fresh ginger garlic and roasted peanut sauce and coated with West African peanut pepper spice rub," according to the Chiefo's Kitchen website). Another customer favorite is her take on Scotch eggs.
"Not a lot of people know about Nigerian food," said Chukwudebe, who’s been with La Cocina for three years. “Most of what they know [about Nigeria] is from the news. But the best way to get to know a culture is through food. My goal is to bring the best of West Africa to the Bay Area. I want people to taste Africa, to taste the sunshine. There’s more to food than what’s on the plate."
She is glad to be a part of La Cocina and said the business brings the issues of food to the forefront, and above all, provides her with a network of fellow cooks and owners.
"Most important to me is the community of women business owners providing support," she said. "It’s hard work, but I wouldn’t change it."
The event drew in people who are new to the food business and others who hope to jump in soon, including an Oakland resident who preferred not to give her name for professional reasons. She hopes to quit her job and start a community food space, kitchen, and market place in Oakland later this year, and she's enjoyed drawing up ambitious plans for her future sustainable food business.
"It’s been fun connecting with people who are excited about making it happen," she said, noting that she was inspired by the food owner speakers at the event. "People are doing pieces of what I want to do."
Throughout the day, between panels and during coffee breaks, there was lots of upbeat chatter and excited conversations. Anna Rakoczy, a new business owner and founder of Homemade , an organization that holds weekly healthy cooking meet ups for sustainable weight loss, was especially enthused about the event. La Cocina, she noted, "helps entrepreneurs who are cooking real food with real ingredients."
To the fit Stanford graduate, helping others become healthy is not just a job. "For me, to actually show people how easy it is to achieve weight loss and a sustainable lifestyle just by eating delicious, healthy, natural, real food ... that, for me, is so inspiring and exciting," said Rakoczy.
Luis Gonzales, a Treasure Island resident who volunteered at the event, aptly captured the spirit of La Cocina, and its small food businesses. "People look for homemade food and the public helps them [small food businesses] survive," he said. "It’s like a symbiotic relationship."