Can La Cocina's Food-Focused Conference Help Grow Equitable Communities?

Celeste Noche, Soleil Ho and Nik Sharma after panel on Representation in Food Media (Anna Mindess)

How can a food-focused conference help grow more inclusive and equitable communities? That's the question that La Cocina’s 7th annual conference (April 16-18) aimed to answer. But while people from around the country gathered for some serious strategizing, there was still space to let off a little steam.

In one session, writer Nik Sharma, of a brown table, declared that, instead of employing “the language of amazement,” Instagrammers need to find a different way to frame the foods that are new to them. His examples: “OMG, I AM SO INTO TURMERIC!” or “Have you heard: saffron cures cancer!!!” His advice: “Stop exoticizing cultures, and just calm down.”

During three days of activities, food entrepreneurs, academics, writers, activists, and city planners were invited to share ideas and network on creating more equitable economic opportunity for everyone. Tuesday was devoted to lively panel discussions where individuals and members of organizations leveraged their experience to “imagine what cities and communities could look like with more women and people of color leading the way.”

Opening speaker, Reem Assil of Reem’s, a Palestinian Bakery in Oakland, asserted that making food is cultural work and challenged attendees to “create a space where marginalized communities can express themselves.”

Shakirah Simley, Tiffany Carter, Shani Jones on panel Black Leaders in Food
Shakirah Simley, Tiffany Carter, Shani Jones on panel Black Leaders in Food (Anna Mindess)

The panel Asserting Power: Black Leaders in Food was hosted by Shakirah Simley of Nourish/Resist. She described food as intersectional since it involves social justice, housing, economics and transportation.

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Panelists agreed that resilient African American and Caribbean women have been the backbone of the Black family preserving history, seeds, farming techniques and heritage recipes passed down through slavery.

Tiffany Carter, who makes Creole Food at Boug Creole Deli in Bayview, said, “Black women were the original chefs of America. And now they are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs.” After cooking in her uncle’s church, Carter attended Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School (where she fell in love with French food). Someday she also wants to open a French restaurant, but for now, she says, “I want to represent my ‘hood and they want to eat our food.”

Shani Jones’ Peaches Patties honors her mother’s Jamaican roots. Since in her experience, most people in the Bay Area are not familiar with Jamaican food, Jones sees this business also as an opportunity to educate. “Racism is in the veins of this country,” she said. “We need to change the laws. A company hires one Black person and boasts that now they are diverse.” Jones countered, “No, you are not!”

Writer, Tunde Wey cooks Nigerian food from his homeland. He described a project he did in a New Orleans food hall where he made and served one dish a day for $12, but asked that white customers pay $30, which represents the difference in income between Black and white Americans. He returned the net profit from this project to the Black community.

 Shakirah Simley and Tunde Wey
Shakirah Simley and Tunde Wey (Anna Mindess)

Panelists in almost every session had some strong words regarding their Representation in Food Media

When asked what bothered them or “burned their eyelids” on sites like Instagram, professional photographer Celeste Noche, called out content that is “specific to the white gaze,” such as a post asking, “Would you eat a cricket? Choose: Hell No! or Hell Yes!” She asked editors to consider, “Whose voice is missing from the table?” If you are going to write about Filipino food, you really need to talk to some Filipinos.” She urged readers, “if you read something you appreciate or agree with, let the writers know you support them and write to their editors too. If you disagree, question their sources.”

Soleil Ho, of the podcast Racist Sandwich, put it plainly: “Food media is targeted to gentrifiers. It’s a form of entertainment, a leisure time pursuit, since most readers don’t actually have to struggle with food insecurity.” She concluded, “We need to bring in new voices and it’s cool to use food to talk about bigger things, like colonialism, imperialism and cultural appropriation.”

Preeti Mistry chats with Zahir Janmohamed of Racist Sandwich podcast
Preeti Mistry chats with Zahir Janmohamed of Racist Sandwich podcast (Anna Mindess)

Preeti Mistry, author of Juhu Beach Club Cookbook, and co-owner with her wife, Ann Nadeau, of Navi Kitchen expressed her frustration with the media. Mistry’s family is from India, but she grew up in the U.S. “As the youngest of three girls, everyone wants the story to be about how I learned to cook at my mother’s knee," she said. "While in fact, I had zero interest in cooking, saw it as another chore, like cleaning the bathroom.” Mistry is also very upfront that her restaurants are “a wife and wife enterprise.” “While the media seems to love playing up husband and wife teams,” she said, “my wife is usually left totally out of the equation.”

Lunch featured graduates of La Cocina's incubator kitchen project, including Mama Lamees Palestinian cuisine
Lunch featured graduates of La Cocina's incubator kitchen project, including Mama Lamees Palestinian cuisine (Anna Mindess)

Attendees from around the country came looking for more than just food for thought. They sought solutions and like-minded souls, networking opportunities and concrete ways to change the system.

Another La Cocina graduate, Nite Yun, serving Cambodian food, just opened Num Bai Restaurant in Oakland
Another La Cocina graduate, Nite Yun, serving Cambodian food, just opened Num Bai Restaurant in Oakland (Anna Mindess)

Stephanie Yee is a recruiter for chefs and managers. She encounters economic issues everyday, particularly in trying to hire people to work in San Francisco when they can't afford to live in the city due to the lack of affordable housing.

June Tong is starting a new website called Spill the Dish, where restaurant and hotel workers in lower paid positions can share their stories of the behind the scenes behavior, (like Glass Door but solely focused on food service jobs).

April Word, who cooked at Chez Panisse for five years, now works in high-tech. As Executive Chef at Thumbtack, she oversees daily meals for 300 employees. Besides making environmentally conscious choices, she wants to foster social justice in the kitchen and the community.

Dr. Peter Roberts, professor in the business school at Emory University, brought a group of attendees from Atlanta, Georgia. He believes that a university’s business school should not solely focus on teaching its students how to make money, but should be a hub for solving hard problems, such as micro-business acceleration.

Attendees engaged in impassioned discussions throughout the day
Attendees engaged in impassioned discussions throughout the day (Anna Mindess)

Other sessions focused directly on economic realities, such as affordable housing, partnerships between developers and food business owners and banks that lend money to immigrant-run food businesses and socially responsible causes.

As for conclusions: the panel on food media suggested ways to create a more responsive media: divest, infiltrate and make new. Hire staff writers and editors of color, but don’t just throw them in “the snake pit,” support them. Bring people together, instead of segregating them.

At the close of the panel on women, called “The Future is Female and It’s Delicious,” the panel’s consensus: the future doesn’t have to only be female, but it needs to be inclusive, equitable and diverse.

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At the end of the panel on Black Leaders in Food, Shakirah Simley quoted Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, who said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Simley added, “For Black women, it can’t stop there anymore. Fuck the folding chair! I should be at the head of the table.”

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