“Food was not so much a common ground on which people declared themselves alike; rather, it provided a visceral record of a shared history of meeting and interaction across cultural and social boundaries.” -Donna Gabaccia
kitchen for three is a project that I started in january of 2012 in collaboration with la cocina, a non-profit incubator kitchen in san francisco’s mission district. in particular, i wanted to highlight the stories of three women who are either current or past participants in the incubator program, and talk with them about the ways in which their lives have been influenced by their shared affiliation at the organization. the stories of chiefo chukwudebe, azalina eusope, and cristina arantes, written here, indicate how a the simultaneous emphasis on individual cultural heritage and shared participation at the organization provide the foundation for a strong narrative and
to share the stories of three women: chiefo chukwudebe, azalina eusope, and cristina arantes“Kitchen for Three” is a platform for the stories of three women who either are current participants, or have participated in the culinary incubator program at La Cocina. The intent behind this project is to provide a holistic glimpse into the lives of Azalina Eusope, Chiefo Chukwudebe, and Cristina Arantes. While each woman undoubtedly has a unique story to tell, I set about this project interested in examining whether, despite their differences, these three women were linked in some way through their shared involvement at La Cocina. These women had found their way to the organization by different means, from a wide variety of backgrounds—but each was able to find a degree of their identity through their participation with the organization.
My fieldwork and observation took place during two non-consecutive stretches of time in 2011 and 2012. The first was a fifteen-week internship at La Cocina, and the second, an eight-week period for which I returned to San Francisco with the purpose of spending more time with Azalina, Chiefo and Cristina. My methodology was inspired largely by Carole Counihan’s “food centered life histories.” In Around the Tuscan Table (2004) Counihan suggests that the memories and experiences surrounding food “production, preservation, preparation, consumption, and exchange” were in fact indicative of individual perceptions of twentieth-century Florentine food and culture (Counihan, 2004, 2). By sorting her interview content into broader themes, Counihan was able to weave these perceptions together into a larger narrative. Although my work at La Cocina is on a much smaller scale—both fewer subjects and shorter period of time—I applied Counihan’s technique of sorting field notes and interview transcriptions into broader themes, in the hope that these conclusions would provide a more holistic glimpse into these women’s lives. I was first introduced to Azalina, Chiefo, and Cristina because of their affiliation with La Cocina, and typically, our conversations revolved around food; but each woman used food as a vehicle to talk about many other aspects of their lives.
The purpose of this project, then, is to share these three narratives. The themes can be categorized on two basic levels: the personal, and the communal. First, I’ll explain the communal, which, when it comes to examining an organization like La Cocina, may initially seem more intuitive. After all, the “La Cocina community” is the most obvious factor that links these three women together. However, I realized that the communal realm also represents both the physical and theoretical space of La Cocina as an organization, as well as the collective identity that the organization provides to its’ participants. But this body of individuals that are collectively identified as La Cocina participants encompasses a lot of diversity, therefore linking it to the importance of analysis on the personal level. The personal realm includes these women’s lives at home, and the promotion of their business apart from the incubator organization. Put together, the communal and personal realms provide a better idea of what life is like for Azalina, Chiefo, and Cristina. What I found was that their identity was not taken only from their participation at La Cocina, but was strongly rooted in their ability to self-identify as female, immigrant food entrepreneurs in San Francisco. Learning to explain this identity, what Counihan may describe as the weaving of their narratives, is what links all of these areas of their story together.
In the opening pages of Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States (1984), editors Brown and Mussell tell the story of a young boy on his first train ride. At the moment his ticket is punched by the conductor, the train begins to roll out of the station, thus leading the boy to believe that the punch of the ticket must have set the train in motion. At the end of the illustration, the authors suggest “you must be careful with cause and meaning when you interpret the part to the whole” (Brown and Mussell, 1984, 3). In the process of collecting information, making observations, conducting and transcribing interviews, and organizing the content for this project, I tried to keep Brown and Mussells’ advice in mind. The presentation of these three narratives is not intended to be a comprehensive report on La Cocina as an incubator organization. Instead, the pieces of their stories begins to indicate how this non-profit has gradually shifted to meet the needs of a wide variety of program participants since it first opened its’ doors.
La Cocina has been operating in the Mission District of San Francisco since 2005. Although in 2012 they continue to operate in that original space, many of the intricacies of the incubator program have evolved over the course of the past seven years. Stated on the organization’s website, the primary goal and mission of the incubator is to “cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market and capital opportunities” (website content, 2012). This work is directed toward women from communities of color and immigrant communities from around the Bay Area, in the hope that these entrepreneurs will be able to achieve economic self-sufficiency through the support from fellow participants and staff of the incubator program.
My own work with La Cocina during the summer of 2011 was a considerable source of inspiration for this project. For three months, I was a policy intern and “mobile foods wizard” at the organization. The majority of my time there was spent preparing for La Cocina’s Second Annual National Street Food Conference that would be held on August twenty-first and twenty-second of that year. During those weeks of preparation, I gained an immense appreciation for the tireless dedication of all of the employees and volunteers (including 300 to 400 the day of the Street Food Festival alone) that were drawn to 2148 Folsom St. Above all of that, La Cocina is defined by the women who work, day-in and day-out in the kitchen; prepping tamales to sell in Justin Hermann Plaza, pickling blueberries for a “signature” curry-bomb sandwich sold at Fort Mason Off the Grid, and frying scotch eggs for a cooking class. I left La Cocina to return to school in September 2011, deeply impressed by these individuals.
Reflecting on these experiences, I could not help but recognize the truth in Ethnic and Regional Foodways (1994) that in culinary history, written record has often excluded a cultural context for ethnic cuisine. The lack of voice given to the ‘other,’ women and minority groups, is a theme that can be traced across numerous cultures, in multiple disciplines. As the focal point for the organization, I felt that these women’s stories needed to be shared. For that reason, the material in the following sections is presented in a way that will give a voice to these female entrepreneurs.
I chose these three women because of the connection that I had established with them during my internship the previous summer. Since their businesses were three that I was already familiar with, I felt as though the processes of observation and interviewing would be more comfortable for my subjects. It also happened that Cristina, Azalina, and Chiefo represented different types of cuisine, had different goals for their businesses, and had different responsibilities at home. For one, Azalina is from Penang, Malaysia; and few people in the Bay Area are familiar with the food of her tribe, the Mamak. She is also a single mother of two. Chiefo, while also a single mother, was born in Asaba, a part of the Bendel State in Nigeria. Even in context of San Francisco, Nigerian cuisine remains relatively unfamiliar, or exotic, so Chiefo has chosen to present her food with as little manipulation from its’ traditional method of preparation as possible as to give San Franciscans her taste of Nigeria. Finally, Cristina’s packaged cookies and confections undoubtedly have been influenced by her Brazilian heritage, but just as much so by her obsession with “American treats.” As a graduate of La Cocina, Cristina’s perspective on the organization is unique from the other two women. She has established her business in a neighborhood and office space quite different from La Cocina and the Mission, and although the La Cocina community remains a part of her life, her day-to-day operation is not so directly connected to the incubator organization in the way they still are for Azalina or Chiefo.
The remainder of the site is formatted to highlight the moments of distinction and commonality between Azalina, Chiefo, and Cristina—keeping in mind both the personal and communal level. The format is also intended to allow each woman to speak in her own voice, and to demonstrate how the narrative is not only influenced by joint involvement at La Cocina, but by their past, and lives in San Francisco as immigrant entrepreneurs as well. I have divided the remainder of my analysis into four sections: collective identity, which focuses on their understanding of La Cocina; culinary tourism, highlighting the ways in which both food, individual, and ethnic ‘other’ are “exoticized”; creating a story, which describes the process of learning how to share their experiences with their customer; and conceptualizing a space, which contrasts the different stages of involvement with the incubator organization. To learn more about Azalina Eusope, Cristina Arantes, or Chiefo Chukwudebe, just click on their corresponding pages.
At La Cocina, the narrative reigns supreme—and each woman has a different story to tell. The women here come to the organization from a myriad of backgrounds, representing many different cultures, with the intention of starting all varieties of businesses: from catering, to producing packaged products, to weekly pop-up dinners and brick-and mortar restaurants. In chapter five of Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States, anthropologist Brett Williams suggests that migrant Tijano women prepare tamales for their husbands as a way to reaffirm their dignity and celebrate family tradition. The tamale, symbolic of “women’s routine nurturance of men” (Williams, 1984, 113), illustrates that “women’s influence is even greater when they are not isolated from their kinswomen.” In the same way that these Tijano women find solidarity in their kinfolk, La Cocina provides a solid foundation for the women who participate in the incubator program. Building from this mutual support, each woman is able to figure out what kind of story they want to tell about their lives and their businesses.
The potential I believe resides in the narrative is also the reason I chose to format the project as it is. I have gathered the content on these pages through several observations and emails; by attending events throughout San Francisco; and in nearly five hours of recorded and transcribed interviews. The selected pieces of their stories, written below, were what I felt gave the most accurate image of what mattered most in the creation of their businesses.
Technically speaking, Cristina was a part of one of the first “cohorts” of the incubator program at La Cocina. The term cohort now refers to a group of women who apply and enroll at La Cocina during the same application period. In 2012, La Cocina accepts applications three times a year, but when Cristina began, the program was not yet regimented into these set enrollment periods. Examining her story, starting with the three years that she spent at La Cocina, and then moving both backward to her life in Sao Paolo and forward to the expansion of Kika’s Treats in 2012, it became apparent that Cristina has always valued and relied on her community of friends, family, and business associates. The importance she continues to place on community strongly influences the way that she tells her own story.
My conversations with Cristina frequently began with her reflecting, to some degree, on her involvement with La Cocina. But Cristina’s positive relationship with food began at a much earlier age—even back to her first realm of collaboration in the kitchen, baking with her mother in Brazil. Together, they would make all sorts of cakes, cookies, and desserts for family and friends. When it came to sweets in her mothers’ kitchen, food was to be celebrated, and was closely associated with “moments of creativity.” Even though there was a significant amount of time between these early years in the kitchen and when she would return to baking as “Kika” in San Francisco, it was this creative space that sparked the idea for her business. Just before submitting her application to La Cocina in 2005, Cristina traveled home to visit her family in Brazil. She recalls that this trip was the reason she switched her business plan from making pot du crèmes to Brazilian honey cakes—and even though she is no longer baking her honey cakes alongside her mother, the choice to make and sell them in the United States is a way for Cristina to pay tribute to her mom.
As a young adult in Sao Paolo, Cristina worked for several years in the private sector. After deciding to switch careers, she moved to San Francisco on sabbatical to study non-profit administration. At this moment in her life, Cristina’s decisions about food took her in a new direction: actually working in the industry. Her first job at a Mediterranean restaurant opened the door to becoming a pastry chef, and in turn, a fellow pastry chef later would later open the door to La Cocina. These culinary professionals became her early support system in the United States, ultimately leading her to the start of Kika’s Treats.
When La Cocina opened in October of 2005, Cristina walked in. Although she did not know it at the time, this fledgling organization was to become one of the most influential families she would be a part of. For almost three years, Cristina participated in the incubator program at 2948 Folsom Street, slowly growing and developing her line of Kika’s Treats. All the while, she relied on staff, volunteers, and follow program participants to give her the feedback and advice she needed to move forward. As her line of treats grew, a distinct “Brazilian aspect” began to appear in the desserts. Now, Cristina believes that the use of “exotic ingredients” like palm sugar and coconut oil, even in American treats like the graham cracker, is part of what makes her product unique.
In 2012, Cristina has many different hopes for what Kika’s Treats will become. For now, she will continue to rely on the support of her La Cocina family, the advice of fellow chocolatiers, and the passion she inherited from her mother to guide her forward.
Like Cristina, so much of the way that Azalina promotes her business relates to her childhood. Her story has a greater importance for the success of her business than it does for Cristina, however, because as a native of Penang, Malaysia, Azalina’s food is still somewhat unfamiliar to residents of the Bay Area. So even though telling her story is a way for Azalina to bridge this gap of unfamiliarity between her customer and her food, sifting through these childhood memories is sometimes a painful experience for Azalina.
Some of the challenge that Azalina has encountered in her past is reflected in her struggle to name her business. In total, she has switched the name of her business four times before finally being able to come to terms with her identity as a Malaysian chef. In 2011, she decided to change her business name to Azalina’s. “I had a strong feeling I have to name my business on my name, because it’s me that’s making the food, and I’m giving people an experience through how I grew up, and what I ate when I was growing up.” Making that decision has had a positive affect on her business, as well: “…telling stories about who I am, about the business, while they’re eating especially—gets people more excited.”
Since Azalina has been away from her family in Penang longer than she actually lived there, it is clear to see why her memories are so invaluable to her. Cooking has become the primary way for her to remember that part of her life, and the best way for her to share her past with her children. “I think because I grew up despising… I don’t want to be part of my family, I didn’t want people to call me Mamak, and now—after being away from it, and after realizing it, it’s the most wonderful thing the Mamak people have given me. It influences the way I make food for my children, it evokes the most memories for me, it makes me happy!” In many ways, her recollections do not just uncover the details of her life as a Mamak, they demonstrate her pervasive positivity.
As a single mother, Azalina’s first priority is always her children. She made it clear that she hoped her attitude would affect them. “When I’m happy I’m channeling it to my children.” But the reverse is true as well, and her children inspire her to keep things going. “They are the one to sit me down and make me a cup of tea, take me to the couch and say, momma, you’re going to be just fine. I think that I am blessed to have my children. I think my kids really shape me, who I am as a business woman.” As long as she is able to teach them that they are not entitled to anything, then she is doing her part. “I don’t only want to be a role model for my children, I want them to be inspired by what I do.”
Cooking has also become a way for Azalina to channel her positivity to her customers when she shares Malaysian food with them. In fact, one of the dishes from her childhood has become her best seller for Azalina’s: the chai banana fritter. “I think the chai banana fritters, that was an influence a lot of me growing up, going to the street and getting it—banana fritters from street vendors, or my uncles or cousins that are selling it—and I wanted to do that back here. Only Mamak people do the banana fritters.” This March, when Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center reopens, people will visit her stand just to have a taste of the fritters. Clearly, Azalina’s story and food combine to a very memorable experience.
Even though Azalina’s time at La Cocina has not yet come to a close, her gratitude for the work that the organization has done for her has fostered a sort of “pay it forward” attitude that she hopes will materialize in a future business some day. “Sometimes people have to open their eyes. Some people have more than others, so the one that has more has to open their eyes and be much more observant around themself to be able to give the opportunity back to people that do not have it. I want to give people a chance to be who they are, working for me.”
Chiefo and Azalina both have a large educational component to tackle in the promotion of their businesses. Chiefo’s primary goal with her business, Chiefo’s Kitchen, is to make Nigerian and West African food more popular in the Bay Area. A second goal, which closely coincides, is her desire to “change… or tweak the view of how people see Africa.” As a culinary professional, attempting to sell food in a city where knowledge of Nigerian cuisine is relatively limited, she must face this challenge before she is able to change her customers’ view of Africa. One advantage that Chiefo has as a small business owner is that her food literally is her life—figuring out just how much of her life to share is part of the learning process. “I don’t want people to immediately put me in this box of what they view of Africa. Generally people see Africa as one state, or one country—they see Africa as everybody being poor, as everybody being uneducated, and I kind of shy away from that. I am very careful about what I say.”
The best way that Chiefo can find to pave the way for other Nigerian chefs in the Bay Area is to share her personal experiences with food—which have been always been marked by a sense of audaciousness. As a girl in Nigeria, Chiefo cooked with her brother and sister when her parents were away from home. “It was something that we weren’t meant to do… we used the gas [stove] and all of this other stuff when they weren’t around.” With a Nigerian father and Texan mother, Chiefo grew up eating all sorts of dishes. One of her favorites as a child was her mothers’ okra soup. “She’s a great cook, she grew up cooking… but once she learned that we could cook, she retired. So now she cooks on the holidays, basically.” For her love of experimentation with cooking, she credits her father. He would routinely pass her different foods that he grew on the farm and orchard, and let her test things out. Whether or not the end result was edible, they always had fun together.
When she pursued cooking as a career later in life, Chiefo continued to experiment with her ingredients and recipes, changing them until she felt she had created the best possible dish; and when it comes to her food, she is always working to create a memorable experience for the people around her. For her family, that means making healthy food choices. For her business, that means that she lives by the slogan for Chiefo’s Kitchen, “everybody sits at the high table.” Chiefo explained that in Nigeria, parties are much more extravagant than they are in the United States. At events, there is a high table where all of the distinguished guests sit—chefs, or our equivalent to “stars”—“back home, they like to show off in a way.” With her business, she wants to make everyone feel like they are sitting at the high table.
When it comes to bringing Nigerian cuisine to the Bay Area, Chiefo is one of the sole advocates. The care and attention given to her food is the primary way in which Chiefo has already begun to bridge the gap of unfamiliarity with Nigerian food in the Bay Area. While San Franciscans are learning to accept an alternate image of an African businesswoman, Chiefo will continue to promote and sell her chin-chin to whomever will take the time to listen to her story.
As the creation of a story began to point out, as immigrant entrepreneurs in San Francisco, Azalina, Chiefo and Cristina must realize that their clients may be unfamiliar with their food. Essentially, the customer can choose between something that they have already tasted and know to be “safe,” or venture to try a dish of which they know little about—thus illustrating the dichotomy between familiar and “exotic.” This concept of “othering,” as it is described by Dr. Lucy Long in her work Culinary Tourism (2004), becomes a way for “culinary tourists” to negotiate the balance between the exotic and familiar. Culinary tourism, defined by Long as “the intentional, exploratory participation in the foodways of an other—participation include the consumption, preparation, and presentation of a food item, cuisine, meal, system, or eating style considered to belong to a culinary system not one’s own” (Long, 2004, 21), essentially indicates how foods move from being exotic or inedible, to familiar and edible, and back to exotic once more.
All three women are faced with this process on a daily basis. It is the thing that may inhibit the growth of their business, but if they are able to negotiate the unfamiliarity, it is also the process that will help their food enter the realm of the edible. Long suggests that there are five strategies for negotiation: framing, naming or translation, explication, menu selection, and recipe adaptation. This section is meant to explore the ways in which San Franciscans become culinary tourists by eating the food of these three immigrant women, as well as to highlight the strategies that Azalina, Chiefo, and Cristina use to make their food more familiar and marketable in the Bay Area.
In Chiefo’s mind, the strategy of naming and translation is the best way to present her Nigerian cooking to her clients, as unadulterated as possible. “I call them [the dishes] by their Nigerian name… and then I explain what it is. I want them to know that I don’t change the ingredients.” But until people have the opportunity to taste her food, dishes like moi moi, black-eyed peas with tomatoes, onion, crayfish and peppers, or her signature “scotch egg” may sound a bit too exotic. That is why this strategy is so important if she is to succeed in growing her clientele base in the Bay Area.
Paging through the January 2012 issue of Bon Appetit Magazine a few months ago, I came across something that surprised me. There, in the “prep school” column was step-by-step directions and a recipe for the scotch egg. Neither the magazine article nor corresponding blog post made any mention of the origin of the snack—which, I would guess, would go unnoticed by most of their readers. Having eaten a scotch egg prepared by Chiefo, I know a little more than the column writer and magazine editors cared to disclose. This points to an interesting reality for a Nigerian caterer like Chiefo: perhaps the origin of the scotch egg was intentionally obscured. In the same way that Chiefo attempts to familiarize her clients through the naming and translation of her dishes and ingredients, Bon Appetit made an attempt to popularize the scotch egg by likening it to “morning’s favorite combo” (bonappetit.com, January 2012).
Not only is the scotch egg a very common Nigerian snack, it is also Chiefo’s bestseller for her business. It is not entirely difficult to imagine why: essentially, it is a hard-boiled egg, encased in a layer of sausage, then breadcrumbs, and fried until crisp and golden. Chiefo first introduced this signature dish at La Cocina’s 2010 Street Food Festival, and while she wasn’t sure what to expect, at the end of the seven-hour day, she was the third-highest gross seller for the entire event. She was delighted and shocked by how well her food had been received, mostly because the scotch egg is all too common back in Nigeria. “It is something we have all the time.”
As the top seller for Chiefo’s Kitchen, the scotch egg is also emblematic of some of the strange requests that Chiefo has for her catering business. Once, she had a customer ask if she would be willing to trade the sausage for faux-meat. Due to her strict adherence to her traditional Nigerian recipes, Chiefo decided against it. “I’m sure it’s possible, but I don’t think that it’s something I would do and sell as my business.” The same goes for all of the other Nigerian dishes that are sold under the name Chiefo’s Kitchen. If she intends to popularize Nigerian cuisine in the Bay Area, she will keep it as true to its original form as possible, with one exception: individual catering clients. Otherwise, she does not intend on watering down her food for “American tastes” (Chiefo, personal interview, March 15, 2012).
This approach is especially true when it comes to her recently released packaged products, chin chin and suya spice. For the chin chin, which is sweet, fried pieces of pastry dough seasoned with nutmeg, all of the ingredients can be sourced in the greater San Francisco area. The components for suya spice, on the other hand, must come from home in Nigeria. “I would prefer… I want to get them myself from home, and go back to the store where I get them. I know that they’re fresher, I know where they are coming from. Everybody says, you know, the stuff from their home country is the best. I think that stuff from Africa is the best.” By adhering to these cooking principles, Chiefo has not only identified her way of familiarizing Nigerian food in the Bay Area, she has also created an arena for San Franciscans to engage in culinary tourism by trying her food.
Simply focusing on the stories that Azalina and Chiefo tell about their food, it was clear that a point of commonality for these two women was the fact that their food was perceived as “exotic.” From a culinary tourism perspective, on the other hand, the actual presentation of their food could not be more dissimilar. For Chiefo, as we have just discussed, it is out of the question to alter her Nigerian food for her clients, when the food is sold under the name Chiefo’s Kitchen. For Azalina, her primary concern is to meet the tastes of her customers, and she does not shy away from experimenting with her ingredients to make sure she achieves that goal. This technique, one of Long’s strategies of negotiation, is known as recipe adaptation: “it involves the manipulation of the ingredients and presentation methods of particular dishes in order to adapt to the foodways system of anticipated consumers” (Long, 2004, 43).
Despite this obvious flexibility with her cooking, as a Mamak woman selling her food in the Bay Area, Azalina still has her work cut out for her. Part of this has to do with her appearance. “I always get this all the time, people asking, ‘what part of India are you from?’ So I have to explain for twenty-five minutes and say, ‘I’m not Indian, I’m Malaysian…” In the United States, she believes the knowledge of Malaysian cuisine does not extend beyond the food of Chinese Malaysians, and the flavors and complexities of Mamak food is quite different from their cuisine. “In any write-up about Malaysian food, it never mentions anything about Mamak people, and we cook kick-ass food. I need to show that to people here.” But Azalina’s cooking career has taken her down a different path than the traditional street food vendors in Penang. Back home, she explained, being a chef means that you have to study your trade from a very young age. That, or you “have to dedicate your lifetime to make one dish and perfect it.”
Following this tradition, each person in Azalina’s family is skilled at making one item: her grandmother makes rice, her father, noodles, and her mother is infamous for curries. When I asked Azalina whether she considers either one of her packaged products her specialty, she just laughed. “I will never compare myself to those great cooks back home. I never call my business authentic Malaysian food, [because] I don’t think I make authentic Malaysian food.” This is primarily because she deviated from the track that four generations before her had taken. Even though Azalina could technically be considered a street food vendor in the United States due to her current participation at San Francisco’s Off the Grid Fort Mason; her tendency to experiment with food, and use ingredients and a style of preparation that would be unfamiliar to cooks back home forces her to believe that her food is not authentic.
Instead, Azalina’s cooking is a sort of hybrid-Malaysian cuisine, for which she combines the best ingredients from Penang and California.
“Recently I did this event for this woman, she travels a lot to Southeast Asia, and when I had the food—you know the food has a lot of influence of California ingredients to it—she said, ‘you know, I don’t think I can get the same delicious food back there that I can get here!’ So that was a great comment, a great complement to me… so I feel like I am doing something right.”
Instead of identifying herself as an authentic Malaysian chef, she believes comments like this validate her ability to prepare “Malaysian-style” dishes.
One aspect of her cooking that clearly illustrates this style is her careful use of spices. Azalina insists on importing her spices directly from her families’ farm in Penang. “Spices are a component that people don’t always think about, how important it is… it has so much complexity to it. I can smell a spice and I know how they have treated the spice… I can smell if it’s ready or not.” Clearly, this much attention to detail demonstrates how important it is to create the highest quality dish possible for her customers. At the same time, though, Azalina recognizes that she must control the level of spiciness in her packaged peanut sauce and star-anise curry, “so that it’s average for everybody.” She told me that it all depends on whether she knows the person, their temperament, and their personality. Holding a high standard for her ingredients and synchronously being able to gauge the “foodways system” of her anticipated customers has allowed Azalina to, as she mentioned, get her food just right. “Once they taste it, they love it, they come back.”
Her utilization of the strategy of recipe adaptation is symbolic of her identity as a chef. Cooking hybrid Californian-Malaysian cuisine began as a way for Azalina to share her past with her children, but has now expanded into an arena in which she can talk about her life in Penang with her customers in San Francisco. Through this process, Azalina is demonstrating how identity can be explained through food.
For Cristina, who is selling a much more approachable, “American” style line of chocolates and confections, the balance between familiar and exotic is far less delicate than the other two women. By engaging in two strategies of negotiation: menu selection and framing, she has been successful in slowly expanding her line of Kika’s Treats. When she first launched the business at La Cocina in 2006, she did not intend to have a Brazilian aspect to her line, even though the Brazilian honey cakes were her first packaged product.
As one of the most popular desserts in Brazil, perhaps no other current product displays this “Brazilian aspect” as much as the honey cakes. Her recipe for them comes from a book that her mother used, that was published in 1964. “I don’t want to give out my age, but that was also the year I was born… so I thought it was be a double homage to her as well.” But Cristina believes that the other products that she makes have an exotic quality to them as well. “I call them all tropical flavors because they’re coconut, espresso, and cocoa nib. The caramels are made with coconut palm sugar, which doesn’t really come from Brazil, but it’s a very tropical flavor as well.” The inclusion of a product that Cristina considers a “very American thing,” the caramelized graham cracker, indicates the utilization of menu selection. By making her own recipe for a popular American treat, Kika creates instant appeal for her customers.
In addition to using menu selection as a way to familiarize San Franciscans with her line of Kika’s Treats, Cristina also uses Long’s strategy of explication, defined as the “description and explanation of the ingredients, manner of cooking, context for eating, or history and symbolism of the item’ (Long, 39). Since Cristina insists on using high quality ingredients for her cookies and chocolates, she must learn to explain why she will not compromise the integrity of her business that way. Successfully communicating that with her customers means the difference between people choosing her product over one at a lower price point. “Doing demos and getting people to try my food has been major in selling my product. That’s pretty much what it takes is getting people to try, then buy the product. Once they try it, they really get hooked, then it makes sense, the price point.”
Using explication is also essential whenever Cristina considers introducing a new product to her line. One that she is considering for this year is a Brazilian treat called a brigadeiro. “It’s a very Brazilian treat… basically a marriage between a truffle and a caramel. I made mine with coconut, cocoa nib, and almonds. In Brazil, it’s just the kid’s treat, for parties, and I’m trying to introduce them on the West Coast.” By slowly incorporating more distinctly Brazilian treats like the brigadeiro, Cristina is taking her clients from the familiar back to exotic on the culinary tourism spectrum. Her work must incorporate these two strategies of negotiation so that she can be a successful businesswoman.
So far, the two themes that have been explored relate to Azalina, Chiefo, and Cristina’s lives on a personal level. The stories that they share with their clients, as well as the ways in which they negotiate the exchange between familiarity and exoticism are a way for them to demonstrate their identity—of which participation at La Cocina is just a part. In this and the next section, collective identity, I will take a closer look at how the various spaces that La Cocina represents, actual and theoretical, affect the degree that each woman feels a sense of group identity in the organization.
Defining the physical boundaries of an organization is not always as straightforward as it might seem. Especially for folklorists and anthropologists, the difficulty of defining a field is a common one (Black, 2012; Appadurai, 1995). In Modernity At Large, Arjun Appadurai suggests that the “social, territorial, and cultural reproduction of group identity” has changed drastically in the twentieth century (Appadurai, 1995, 48). For that reason, the “landscapes of group identity,” as he calls them, “are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious, or culturally homogenous” (Appadurai, 1995, 48). Organizations like La Cocina are a clear indication of how these “scapes” have changed in the wake of globalization and de-territorialization. In my conversations with Chiefo, Cristina and Azalina, it became obvious that considering various scapes simultaneously would be the best way to understand which spaces were most important to them.
For each woman, one of the most important physical spaces is the kitchen at La Cocina, which acts as a sort of “hub” for the organization. On the next level, each woman indicated areas in the city and Bay Area, such as home kitchens, market sites, and grocery stores, which were integral to the daily operation of their businesses. Finally, the third level of space encompasses each woman’s life abroad. This notion that space can have a different, more theoretical application when it comes to food, is loosely based on Sylvia Ferrero’s “foodscape.” In her analysis of Mexican food consumption in Los Angeles in “Comida sin Par,” she suggests that the foodscape “detects movements of ethnic groups and the immigration flow of such ethnic groups… [and] discloses the establishment of new ethnic communities that increase and broaden their social networks and their links between the homeland and the hosting nations” (Ferrero, 2002, 197). This concept is central to our understanding of just how much Chiefo, Azalina, and Cristina’s identities are shaped by food within various spaces.
For Azalina, the trip from her home in Mt. Davidson, a neighborhood west of Twin Peaks in San Francisco, down to La Cocina in the Mission usually takes about ten minutes. Cristina’s drive from her home in the Mission to her office in the Dogpatch can be done in around fifteen. For Chiefo, on the other hand, the commute from her home in San Leandro across the Bay Bridge and south to La Cocina typically takes at least forty-five minutes. Due to the considerable length of her commute, Chiefo has a tendency to go into the city only when it is necessary for her to do so. When she actually makes it to La Cocina, she doesn’t tend to linger for very long in the Mission. As it turns out, this lengthy commute not only influences her perceptions of La Cocina and the surrounding neighborhood, but her hopes for her business in the future as well.
For one, the round-trip ninety-minute trip means an additional cost for her business, especially with the increasing price of gas. “Funny story… a few years ago, in San Francisco, I used to go—they have the cheapest gas in the city, and I remember going there, that’s when the gas first started going up. I was like, if they go to two dollars, I’m not going to buy their gas anymore! I’m going to boycott! And here we are almost at 5 dollars.” For that reason, she is forced to consider the travel as part of inventory for Chiefo’s Kitchen. Even though more visits to La Cocina translates to a higher tab, she is quick to recognize the importance in the investment: “…the downside is if I don’t do it, then I am stuck at my house, and do not have the support… it’s very easy to just stay at home, but if you’re staying at home you’re not making any money.” Even if it isn’t a new catering job that comes out of being present at La Cocina, Chiefo is inspired by the women who are there working hard, every day.
The physical distance between home and work, as well as her current standing in the program at La Cocina, both have a hand in shaping the future of Chiefo’s Kitchen. Having her daughter around the same time she started as part of the incubator program has meant that, to a certain extent, Chiefo’s progression through La Cocina has been slower than some of the other participants. In turn, this has affected her ability to conceptualize a future space for her business. Right now, rather than focus specifically on an actual space, she is trying to educate and familiarize her clients with Nigerian cuisine. As of now, there is only one other Nigerian restaurant in Oakland, with another to open soon in Berkeley. While Chiefo hopes to join ranks with her own restaurant in the East Bay when she’s ready, she would welcome a bit more competition. “I would love to be the, to be the spokesperson for Nigerian cooking, but I would love for there to also be another woman…. Whatever groundwork I’m setting… if there could be other people, if I could make it easier for other people, then that would help my next stage of what I want to do.” A community of Nigerian chefs, even as competitors, would be symbolic of the nurturing space that La Cocina has provided for her thus far.
As a current program participant, clearly one of the most important spaces for Chiefo is the kitchen at La Cocina. Conceptualizing her business for the future makes the distance from her home, and hopes for prospective clientele, a lot more important in the equation. Unlike Cristina and Azalina, Chiefo did not draw many comparisons between San Francisco and her childhood town of Asaba.
Cristina is, and always has been, a resident of the Mission district. Since La Cocina has always been in “her” neighborhood, her distinction between home and her old workspace is a lot different than the other two women. “It’s where my American roots are, my San Francisco roots. I love it here.” Even though Cristina did not graduate from the incubator program until 2009, in 2008 she began the transition away from La Cocina into her own space a few miles east. This office in the Dogpatch, which is also the space she currently occupies in 2012, proved a much more comfortable home for her new chocolate enrobing machine. From the time she purchased the enrober in April of 2008 until she graduated in 2009, Cristina traveled back and forth between La Cocina and her new workspace.
Since making the complete transition away from La Cocina in 2009, things have become, logistically, much easier for Cristina. Even though she does not depend on that kitchen for work, she continues to visit La Cocina at least once a week–and since the kitchen is on the way to her office from home, the stop is easy enough. She explained that with various chocolate events taking place around the city, there is plenty of opportunity to stay connected to her fellow chocolatiers at La Cocina, another thing that keeps her rooted in this entrepreneurial community.
Her current office, albeit distinguished from La Cocina, has fostered another kind of community. Ever since she moved into the building in 2008, she has rented out portions of the large open room to other chocolatiers and confectioners. Her first tenant, Anastasia, was someone she bonded with instantly. “It was an amazing connection… she lived in the mission as well, so everything worked out perfectly.” Eventually Anastasia moved out, but other businesses like Cocoa, and renowned chocolatier Joseph Schmidt have taken her place. “We share ideas, we exchange comments, we inquire about each other’s products. My new tenant, I’ve learned a lot from him as well because he’s a very talented chocolatier, and I just love sharing the space.”
In the future, Cristina knows her operation is likely to expand, and she may need a larger portion of the space for her own business, but for now, she is enjoying it. For Cristina, space is more symbolic of her community, her support system—and that has remained continuous throughout the years that Kika’s Treats has been in operation.
Azalina’s current situation and relationship with the kitchen at La Cocina is what sets her apart from both Cristina and Chiefo. Categorizing them by current standing with the organization, Cristina is set apart because she has already finished the program. But even though Chiefo and Azalina are both current participants, for Azalina, being in the kitchen is a part of her daily routine. “I’m in here every day.” Living in the city, Azalina is forced to rely on her car to transport her food to various stores, markets, and clients—but La Cocina is her primary workspace. While she is quick to acknowledge her appreciation for the low-cost space to work in, she also admits that there are definite challenges to working alongside thirty-two other women. “The space is very limited, and with thirty-two other businesses, we have to make it work.” For that reason, her participation at La Cocina may present a logistical challenge, but this is the space that also serves to inspire her on a daily basis.
Since Azalina is quite knowledgeable about street food vending back home in Penang, she is able to recognize the sharp contrast that it presents to the way she must live and move around San Francisco. “Back home, everybody’s on their bicycle, motorcycle, or rickshaw… and everything here is so spread out, makes things a bit complicated.” While she would like to rely on a motorcycle or bike to get her to work, living in Mt. Davidson means that it just isn’t a possibility. “I’m hauling things all the time with my car. Things are not so close that you can just go to get something by walking or riding on a bike.” Cristina, on the other hand, felt that navigating San Francisco by car was much simpler than it had been for her in Sao Paolo. For Chiefo, whose memories of food procurement back in Nigeria remind her of daily trips to the farm or market, driving forty-five minutes to get to La Cocina is not quite comparable—so it is not a likely distinction for her to make.
As for a future, more permanent space for Azalina’s, Azalina sees each opportunity as a way to reach someone new through her cooking. “When you do a business with food, different sections of your business, you’re reaching out to different section of the demographic of clientele…” This year, that means opening herself up to the possibility of a pop-up restaurant alongside current projects like continuing to promote her packaged products, catering, teaching, and participating in Off the Grid. Once she is able to outsource the production for her packaged Star Anise Curry, Coconut Jam, and Peanut Sauce, Azalina hopes to open a restaurant. “I want to hire people who grew up in a challenging upbringing, people who always think that they can’t do it and think things are so limited and impossible…everybody is the same, and everybody has the same kind of chances. I think it would be really great for my children to see that.”
From culinary tourism, to the creation of a story, and the exploration of various conceptualizations of space or “foodscapes,” Cristina, Chiefo, and Azalina’s narratives have each demonstrated moments of similarity and incongruity. Even though Chiefo and Azalina are both mothers, their experience starting their respective businesses is much different because of the physical space between their homes and La Cocina. Similarly, although Cristina has finished the program at La Cocina, she has to put in the effort to educate her clients about her line of Kika’s Treats, just as Chiefo and Azalina must do. This last section, related to the “collective identity” that involvement in the incubator program provides its’ participants includes the same sort of varied results for these three women. Although La Cocina is undoubtedly the common factor in each of their narratives, it has a different meaning for Azalina, Chiefo, and Cristina.
Before taking a closer look at the individual examples, I want to provide a definition for collective identity, which comes from Wry, Lounsbury, and Glynn’s Legitimating Nascent Collective Identities (2011). They define the collective identity story as “verbal or written expressions employed by a group of entrepreneurial actors to help project an image of themselves, collectively, as a coherent category with a meaningful label and identity” (Wry et al, 2011, 450). La Cocina is no ordinary organization. The presence of “thirty-two woman that come from all walks of life,” as Azalina described it to me, means that involvement at La Cocina lends to a different type of belonging. For that reason, the stories that each woman had to about their own participation is indicative of the way in which they understood their collective identity.
For Azalina Eusope, this collective identity means association with a program that has allowed her to accomplish what she would have never been able to do on her own. “I feel so much more devotion when I do something for La Cocina because of what they did to me. I could never, ever repeat, in one-hundred million years, though I am a billionaire I don’t think so, that I could do that.” Because of her presence in the kitchen nearly every day, Azalina feels so close to the individuals at La Cocina so to refer to them as “one gigantic family,” There are two parts to this collective interpretation: her relationship with the other program participants, and her relationship with the staff La Cocina.
First and foremost, Azalina is appreciative of how La Cocina is helping she and thirty-two other women formalize their food businesses. “They see a woman that’s from the street, especially an immigrant like I am, and low income like I am, that have a passion for making food at home, to be able to become a sustainable business women that bring it to the market. Because you know, we are pretty awesome cooks that we have all of these women here.” Her gratitude stems from a time before she even knew La Cocina existed. Azalina launched her first business without the help of La Cocina, and was selling her food at the Alemany Farmers’ market. Even though her food was awarded one of “The Top 10 Lunches at Farmers’ Markets” by Bon Appetit in September of 2010, she quickly realized she had no idea how to run a business. “It was very challenging—in Malaysia, it’s so different to start a business compared to here.”
Since enrolling at La Cocina and starting the program, Azalina is receiving the necessary technical assistance to formalize her business. Furthermore, identifying herself as one of these thirty-two immigrant entrepreneurs has been a source of inspiration, and one she compares to the market experience: “It’s like… when you go to Asia, you go to a market and you see all of these people calling out, telling what they’re selling and you know they’re all happy, they’re happy to be there… happy to be doing what they’re doing and they’re enjoying themselves. It is the same as all the women here, they are so passionate in what they’re doing… it becomes like this wave of energy that inspires me to do better every day. “I mean you have a role model right in front of you, just watching how the other women did it, it’s priceless. [If] they’re doing it, why can’t you do it? So that’s always the question I ask myself.” While the presence of other low-income female entrepreneurs at La Cocina acts as this central hub of support and professional connections, it also links women like Azalina into the larger “food world” in the Bay Area. At an event in February of 2012, more than twelve of La Cocina’s current and past business participants went to Google’s offices in Mountain View to demo their product. Each event like this, where there is the mutual support from these familiar faces, but simultaneously the opportunity to network with the larger Bay Area community, gives businesses like Azalina’s the chance to grow.
The second part of this familial interpretation of La Cocina comes from Azalina’s understanding of her relationship with staff at the organization. “I always tell La Cocina, don’t use ‘service,’ because they always say we’re giving you guys a service. It’s not a service, it’s partnership. It’s so important to have that.” This partnership is invaluable to her because unlike some of the women in the program, Azalina does not have family in the Bay Area. While she concedes that her children are constantly shaping who she is as a businesswoman, she needs the support of her peers who “believe in your business as much as you do.” Whenever she participates in a La Cocina-affiliated event, such as the Street Food Festival or cooking class, she said she feels “a different strength, feeling, and devotion. People that come to La Cocina, they love La Cocina, they’re inspired by what La Cocina has done for so many of us.” Her ability to acknowledge her collective identity, or membership in the family of La Cocina, has given her the courage and propensity to propel her business forward.
Like Azalina, one of the primary benefits of being involved at La Cocina is the support she receives from the staff and other participants.
“At La Cocina, you have business who have been through what I’ve been through—you have to deal with things that would make you not succeed—fears, basically. I think with La Cocina, their main goal is to make sure we don’t fail. [But] the best part about working with La Cocina is that I’m able to see people; it’s easy to view people that [already] have establishments as super people. But the great thing about La Cocina is, it kind of tones it down, makes it seem possible.”
A second similarity that Chiefo shares with Azalina is the creation of her business before being a part of La Cocina. In fact, her entrepreneurial mindset began when she was in the Peace Corps in Cote d’Ivoire. She had fallen in love with a hibiscus drink called beesap, and while the comments about turning her obsession into a business were of joking nature, she knew it might actually take her somewhere.
It wasn’t until she applied and enrolled at La Cocina though that her path became clearer. While her friends and family supported her culinary entrepreneurialism, Chiefo needed that extra assistance from the staff and program participants at La Cocina to make her business flourish. The strength of that commitment from La Cocina still astounds her today. She submitted her application toward the end of 2008, but didn’t fully commit until winter of 2009. “I went back and I said to Caleb, ‘I have my application, do you remember me?’ And he said, ‘I’ve been waiting for your application.’” Telling me the story two-and-a-half years later, she can’t believe that the executive director cared enough to remember her after a full year—without any communication. There may have been several forces that were shaping Chiefo before she came to La Cocina, but from here on out, as this story illustrates, her participation would shape her into the businesswoman she is today.
While Chiefo comprehends the indelible influence that La Cocina has made on her life and business, she does not rely on the individuals there for the same degree of support as Azalina does. In short, she is able to separate her business from the unit of the organization. A large part of this is because unlike Azalina, Chiefo has strong ties with her family living in the Bay Area and California. These peer-relationships act to guide some of her decisions about the quality of her food and her Nigerian catering business. However, she believes the success of her business is also dependent on the time, energy, and money she puts into it. “If I fail, La Cocina is not going to reimburse me. They’re not going to pay for my childcare if I decide not to show up for work. So I mean, business is business.” In this way, Chiefo’s understanding of the collective identity indicates that there is room for independence within the bigger whole of the organization. “I view myself as my business, and La Cocina is a separate entity.” This also applies to how she interprets the support from La Cocina staff. During the application process, she can recall being told that while the staff was very willing to help her do whatever she needed to succeed, they reiterated that she must take responsibility for her own decisions. “There’s a separation between them and us, which is the way it should be.”
As I have mentioned, one of biggest the things that sets Cristina Arantes apart from Azalina and Chiefo is the fact that she has already graduated from the incubator program at La Cocina. In terms of a collective identity, however, this point of differentiation is especially important. In 2009, when Cristina was about to graduate, Chiefo and Azalina were just beginning to work on their applications. Now in 2012, when these two women are each about half-way through the program, Cristina has already been operating her business apart from La Cocina for nearly three full years. But whenever Cristina talks about La Cocina, she continues to emphasize the role that the organization plays in her success as a female entrepreneur in San Francisco. To Cristina, La Cocina is a family; and, like family, she says it is “a connection that I don’t think that I will ever, ever lose.”
Cristina’s perspective of La Cocina is also unique because as one of the first cohorts to go through the incubator program, she has observed how the organization has grown and developed over the past seven years. For one, it is much more structured now than it used to be. When she began, women were admitted throughout the year. “It was very different. We had meetings one-one-one, so they would try to determine what kind of help I needed, and try to connect me with volunteers.” La Cocina has also broadened its focus for target applicants. Once relying on an influx of low-income Latina entrepreneurs from the Mission, the organization now includes many different ethnicities. “As the organization grew, they realized there was a bigger need, other than just Latina women. People are from everywhere these days—from Japan, from Europe, from Russia…” The low-income qualifier for the program still prevails.
Although Cristina continues to stop by La Cocina at least once a week, the primary way that she remains connected to this “family” is through her participation in various events around San Francisco with businesses in her “category.” From La Cocina, two of those connections are Claire of Clairesquares and Christine of Neo Cocoa, both of whom make chocolates and confections. These women attend different chocolate events in the city, but also teach an annual Valentine’s Day truffle making class together at La Cocina. Even when she continues to identify with her La Cocina family, she believes that different businesses, based on their category, stand to benefit from the organization in a different way. Her categorization separates businesses like her own, packaged products, from catering business, restaurants, and prepared-foods. However they are classified, she believes that if you have a clear vision for what you want to achieve, La Cocina will do whatever they can to help you achieve that goal. So in the end, despite the growth and development of the organization, she is grateful for the support it has provided her. Like a family, “being a part of the community requires a lot in terms of being patient and understanding, and respecting other people’s space, which can be very challenging. But overall, I think it’s a wonderful structure and a wonderful basis for any kind of business.”