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La Cocina Wants to Tell a Food Story — and Help Its Fledgling Food Businesses Survive the Pandemic

The immigrant-, women-, and BIPOC-focused kitchen incubator has handed out more than $750k to its members during the COVID-19 crisis

Storytellers from last year’s Voices from the Kitchen event lined up on stage
A scene from last year’s in-person Voices from the Kitchen event
Erin Ng

Twice a year, a lineup of writers, artists, activists, and cooks stand on a stage in San Francisco to tell food stories — cast a spell on the audience with moving, thrilling tales of Chinese chicken salad, or a Korean grandmother’s elusive bindaetteok recipe, or mansaf delicious enough to put Palestine on the proverbial map.

That’s always been the power of the Voices from the Kitchen storytelling event, explains Leticia Landa, deputy director of La Cocina, the immigrant-, women-, and BIPOC-focused kitchen incubator that has organized the event since 2016: It’s a platform for culturally diverse voices in and around the food industry that might not otherwise get heard.

The 10th installment, on October 29, will almost certainly reach the event’s widest audience ever: Packing 400 people into a crowded auditorium isn’t really an option right now, so for the first time, Voices from the Kitchen will be broadcast on YouTube as a virtual event. As in past years, the lineup of storytellers is a mixed bag of nationally-famous luminaries like the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino and the food writer Mayukh Sen, as well as several current and former La Cocina food entrepreneurs. Together, they’ll come together for a night of (pre-recorded, edited) multimedia storytelling around the very 2020 theme of “choices” — including the choices folks have been forced to make during this exhausting election season and time of COVID-19.

The show is free to watch, though you have to reserve a spot in advance, and there are options to make a donation or to purchase an accompanying La Cocina snack box (available to be shipped anywhere in the country) or, for Bay Area customers, a meal kit created by one of three La Cocina businesses: an Algerian food from Kayma, Malaysian food from Damansara, and a fried chicken feast from Minnie Bell’s.

Voices from the Kitchen will also be La Cocina’s only fundraising event of the year — and it comes during a time when the organization is particularly strapped for cash. Landa explains that about half of La Cocina’s annual budget comes through traditional nonprofit fundraising. The other half, however, normally comes from income streams that have mostly disappeared during the pandemic: The big catering jobs that La Cocina would broker on behalf of its member businesses — tacking on a 10 percent administrative fee — aren’t happening anymore. And, at a time when La Cocina is helping its members to negotiate with landlords for rent forgiveness, the organization didn’t feel it could in good conscience charge rent on its kitchen facilities — another lost revenue source.

At the same time, the organization established a La Cocina Emergency Relief Fund, raising over $750,000 since the start of the pandemic. La Cocina divides that money, monthly, between however many of its member businesses apply for aid, no strings attached. (Voices from the Kitchen donations and meal kit profits all go into La Cocina’s general fund, but donors can also choose to give directly to the Emergency Relief Fund.)

Tracy Goh, who runs Damansara, says she’s one of the food entrepreneurs the organization has helped keep afloat. Goh explains that her plans to open a laksa bar in San Francisco have stalled as a result of the pandemic, so she’s leaned on those monthly emergency fund checks to get through this time. “It’s the most straightforward relief,” she says.

For Goh’s Voices from the Kitchen meal kit, she’ll be serving several dishes highlighting the cuisine of Malaysia’s Chinese-Malay Peranakan community: pork stew made with fermented buah keluak (a kind of tree nut), turmeric pickles, a curry-filled laminated pastry, and cassava butter cake.

Meal kit with Buah Keluak Pork Ribs; lemongrass & pandan infused jasmine rice; acar Nyonya pickled salad; Vegetable asam pedas; hand laminated spiral curry puff; cassava butter cake.
The Damansara meal kit
Tracy Goh

Aileen Suzara, one of the event’s featured storytellers and a La Cocina alumna herself, says what she loved about her La Cocina experience was that the kitchen incubator “was not only going to offer specific technical resources,” but was also a place she found “people who believe in you and want to hear your story.” “I feel like La Cocina always wants to put people’s well-being first,” Suzara says. “That’s a trait of integrity they hold that not every place holds.”

Voices from the Kitchen reflects those core values, which, as Suzara sees it, have to do with “humanizing the food system and really lifting up people’s faces, people’s stories, and people’s families.” “A lot of food culture just focused on the dishes,” Suzara says. “I felt like La Cocina always put people first.”

Eric Wolfinger

In many ways, Voices from the Kitchen comes at a time when everything is in flux for La Cocina. If it weren’t for the pandemic, the organization’s women-led La Cocina Municipal Marketplace in the Tenderloin — home to seven shiny new food kiosks — would likely be fully open. instead, the food hall will probably open later this year, but only as a commissary kitchen, and likely not to the public until the summer of 2021 at the earliest. In the meantime, the organization won’t charge rent for the use of that kitchen either — so that’s another business model that will need to be rebuilt from scratch.

Despite those looming financial pressures, Landa stresses that she doesn’t want anybody to not watch the show just because they can’t afford to make a donation. The purpose of the event, she says, is to get these underrepresented stories out to as many people as possible. And though Landa hasn’t yet watched the hour-long show (“no one has”), she’s confident that it’ll be a beautiful night of storytelling: “It’s going to be a little bright spot in what is an otherwise really weird, dark time.“

Voices from the Kitchen will be broadcast on Youtube on October 29 at 5:30 p.m. (PST) Reserve a free “ticket” (to receive the private link) on Eventbrite, where there’s also an option to make a donation or to purchase a snack box (by October 16), an appetizer box, or one of three meal kits (by October 23, though certain kits may sell out earlier).

La Cocina Municipal Marketplace

101 Hyde Street, , CA 94102 (415) 570-2595 Visit Website