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Wisdom From the Chefs and Food Entrepreneurs of the La Cocina Conference

Choice quotes from a discussion of food, power, and representation

Shelly Waldman Photography

This week, San Francisco nonprofit food incubator La Cocina brought together a group of chefs, food entrepreneurs, and activists for a broad discussion on the power of food to tell stories and affect change. Panels at the La Cocina Conference ranged from black leadership in the food world to representation in food media to redirecting capital to businesses run by women and people of color. And yes, beyond food for thought, there was also actual food from graduates of La Cocina, which has served successful businesses like Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, Nyum Bai, and James Beard award nominee Reem Assil.

Here are just a few of the takeaways from the two-day conference:

Reem Assil
Shelly Waldman Photography

Reem Assil

Chef/owner of Reem’s California and Dyafa

“My work as a food activist is cultural work... claiming food is an important struggle against [Palestinian] erasure, but it’s not unique to Palestinians.

“Many of us are forced to recreate our homes — that’s a tragedy, right? — but how do we turn that into a privilege?”

“Reem’s is a place where you can imagine a different way for the world to run, where those in the margins are at the center.”

Shakirah Simley, Tiffany Carter, Shandi Jones, and Tunde Wey
Shelly Waldman Photography

Tunde Wey

Chef/owner of Saartji/From Lagos and SF Chronicle columnist

On asking white people to confront privilege by paying more than people of color for food: “One of the more effective means of protest is to take our questions and concerns to spaces that people feel most comfortable, and shake that shit up.”

Tiffany Carter

Chef/owner of Boug Creole Deli

On creating opportunities for people of color: “At culinary school, I could tell they didn’t like me, but I could tell they liked my food. By closing the door on people like me you’re closing the door to awesome food.”

Alicia Villanueva of Alicia’s Tamales
Shelly Waldman Photography

Celeste Noche


On the representation of people of color in media: “Now that it’s a cool thing to have people of color on the cover of your magazines, we have to ask for content that goes deeper than that, [so] we don’t limit those people to just being the brown face on the cover of things.”

Soleil Ho

Co-founder of podcast Racist Sandwich

On making room at the table: “When you’re in a position of power, it’s good to think about who isn’t at the table with you.”

Gabriela Camara

Chef/owner of Cala

On female strength in the kitchen: “We need to incorporate the amazing parts of being female, of being thorough, strong, careful, and caring — and when you teach that to men, it gets to be a working culture that transcends gender.”

La Cocina director Caleb Zigas and Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey

Preeti Mistry

Chef/owner Navi Kitchen

On women in positions more often held by men: “At Navi, it’s sort of like opposite day: One of the hardest things I find actually, is that it’s not that I don’t have plenty of men to work for me, I find it hard for a lot of men to stay.”

Erin Wade

Owner of Homeroom

On her experience surfing (and working) with women versus men: “There were only women in the water, and no one knew each other, and all the historical rules of surfing were flipped on their head, we were trying to figure out how to get the most possible people on one wave at once, we were communicating, sharing, and it was this really joyful experience, and that to me is the competitive edge that women bring to business.”

Haven Bourque
Shelly Waldman Photography

In a parting note to attendees, La Cocina conference and storytelling project manager Megan Orpwood-Russell thanked attendees and called them to action: “Building equitable communities requires many stakeholders, it requires listening and implementing new systems that benefit everyone,” she wrote.

“In coming together and sharing our models for business incubation, cooperative farms, food-oriented development and more, we’re able to draw lines between the challenges that our communities face and envision a way forward together.”

Learn more about La Cocina and its businesses here.