If you've savored a La Luna cupcake in San Francisco's Crocker Galleria or dipped into a tub of organic Love & Hummus at Whole Foods, you have La Cocina to thank. The San Francisco nonprofit is an incubator program for seriously talented -- and beloved -- chefs.
It's not capital that the incubator kitchen provides -- it's support, education and connections.
Since opening its commercial kitchen in the Mission District and launching the popular San Francisco Street Food Festival, La Cocina has helped many low-income food entrepreneurs, primarily women of color from immigrant communities, cultivate and formalize their culinary ventures into successful businesses. To date, there have been 38 women in the program; 15 have graduated and launched their own businesses.
Many start off as cottage caterers and end up with cult-favorite food carts and even restaurants with the help of La Cocina's recipe development expertise, technical and business plan assistance and market opportunities, including some killer internships. And, of course, that fabulous kitchen in a vibrant culinary neighborhood helps make their dreams -- and our taste buds -- come to life.
Below, we celebrate three soon-to-be La Cocina graduates -- Guisell Osorio of Sabores del Sur, Dilsa Lugo of Los Cilantros and Isabel Pazos of El Buen Comer -- as they prepare to unveil their first restaurants in the East Bay and San Francisco.
Isabel Pazos, El Buen Comer
Mexico City is famous for its comida corrida, home-style comfort food typically eaten in the late afternoon to keep the working class energized until quitting time.
These dishes are at the heart of Isabel Pazos' cuisine. Since moving to San Francisco from Mexico City in 2001, Pazos has been cooking these delights -- aromatic green mole with pork, sweet, crumbly chicken tamales and crunchy huaraches -- out of her home kitchen at Van Ness and 22nd. At first, her food went to friends and family. But when she made her first $100 selling sopes, Pazos, a mother of five, realized there was a demand for her cuisine.
"I always liked to cook but never thought I'd be a chef," Pazos recalls in Spanish, as a La Cocina staffer translates. Pazos launched her catering business, El Buen Comer, with the help of her husband and sons and got the immediate attention of La Cocina's executive director, Caleb Zigas.
In 2007, Zigas helped Pazos land an externship baking breadsticks for Delfina, a gig she loves as much as her long-standing spot at the Noe Valley farmers market. She says the best thing La Cocina did for her was help her learn how to manage her catering business.
"That's what built our fan base," she says.
This June, Pazos will open a Bernal Heights restaurant named El Buen Comer, in the spirit of Mexico City's fondas, or small stalls and eateries, that craft comida corrida. "I didn't know opening a restaurant was my dream until it happened," she says.
Dilsa Lugo, Los Cilantros
When you grow up in a family that harvests its own food and then study horticulture in college, starting a food business is almost a natural next step. Especially when Berkeley is your portal.
Dilsa Lugo moved to Berkeley from Cuernavaca, Mexico in 2003, and the lack of healthy Mexican cuisine in the East Bay at the time inspired her to start Los Cilantros, a catering business that used local and seasonal ingredients to craft the handmade tortillas, fresh ceviche and salsas passed down in her family.
"When I came here and saw the farmer's markets, I knew I could do it," she says. "I didn't want my son to grow up eating McDonald's."
Through community classes and the Bread Project, a nonprofit for home-based food entrepreneurs, Lugo joined forces with La Cocina, landing internships at Chez Panisse and A16, and eventually, a sous chef position at Joanne Weir's Copita in Sausalito, where she cooked for 14 months.
"They make you feel like you're not alone," Lugo says of La Cocina. "They trust in you."
At the end of March, Lugo will take over the kitchen at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, where her focus will be breakfast (dulce de leche-filled churros), lunch (tortas, papas con rajas) and dinner on Saturdays. She's thrilled about the opportunity and sees it as the next step in pursuing her long-term dream: opening a mezcaleria in the East Bay.
Guisell Osorio, Sabores del Sur
It was Christmas of 2003 when Guisell Osorio, a "broke" former social worker, stayed up into the night baking 1,000 alfajores for friends and family. Osorio, who immigrated to Walnut Creek from Chile at 17, had tweaked a family recipe, replacing lard with quality butter and adding an extra slab of dulce de leche.
Within weeks, Osorio's catering business was born. With Sabores del Sur, she focused on those sweet buttery bites as well as hearty beef and chicken empanadas.
In 2005, through the Women's Initiative for Self-Employment, Osorio attended a presentation about La Cocina -- and became La Cocina's first applicant and one of the first to ever use its kitchen.
"I was the guinea pig," she recalls. "I've had the opportunity to watch all my sisters grow. That's what we call each other."
Over the years, Osorio says her biggest challenge has been learning to market and sell her food. Through La Cocina, she earned a spot at Outside Lands, the huge music and food festival at Golden Gate Park, and developed her own packaging and logo. She learned payroll and accounting. She acquired a small business loan.
Today, Osorio has 20 employees, but she still does her own shopping, deliveries and invoices -- and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to man her stall at the San Ramon farmers market.
"It's one thing to grow your business, but it's another to get a text from a customer saying, 'I'm coming today because I miss your cookies, but I also miss your hugs,'" Osorio says. "I love my customers."
You can find her alfajores at select Whole Foods or at Osorio's new restaurant, Sabores del Sur, which she plans to open on her birthday, April 17, just across the street from Pleasant Hill BART. In addition to Chilean pastries and empanadas, the cafe will serve churrasco (grilled meat sandwiches), Chilean salads, Peruvian pork and Equator coffee.
Reach Jessica Yadegaran at firstname.lastname@example.org
La Cocina's doesn't just help up-and-coming culinary entrepreneurs. You can take artisan cooking classes at the San Francisco facility, shop the online market and join the fun at the annual San Francisco Street Food Festival on Aug. 16. Learn more at www.lacocinasf.org.