La Cocina: The Incubator That Helps Immigrant Women Chase American Dream : The Salt Since 2005, San Francisco's La Cocina has helped low-income entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Some went on to recognition from the prestigious James Beard awards. A new book tells their stories.

The Food Business Incubator That Helps Immigrant Women Pursue The American Dream

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La Cocina means the kitchen in Spanish. It's also the name of a business incubator in San Francisco, a nonprofit for local food entrepreneurs, many of whom are low-income immigrant women. Their stories and recipes are now featured in a new cookbook. Here is NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The farmer's market outside San Francisco's Ferry Building is bustling on Saturdays. At one stand, Mariko Grady offers samples of her homemade miso soup.

MARIKO GRADY: You want to taste my fermented product?


She explains that her soups are made with tofu, marinated miso and fermented rice and barley koji.

GRADY: Everything easy digest and then create umami.

DEL BARCO: Delicious, too.

GRADY: Thank you.

DEL BARCO: (Laughter).

Grady brought the original koji seeds from Japan, where she had a 30-year career as a singer and dancer with a prestigious modern theatrical dance group she founded. After she married, she moved to San Francisco, often returning to Tokyo to rehearse, until her company disbanded in 2011 after a huge earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

GRADY: Very difficult to get enough money from government. And then every member want to reset their life.

DEL BARCO: She reset her life too, creating her own business with the help of La Cocina's food entrepreneur program. But as she works, she still sings.

GRADY: (Singing in foreign language).

DEL BARCO: A few stalls away is another immigrant dancer-turned-chef, Aisan Hoss. She and her husband Mehdi Parnia hold their 3-month-old daughter Selma, as they sell their homemade kukus - Iranian-style frittatas packed with fresh herbs and vegetables. They're served with pickles, tomatoes, sauces and dips. Three years ago, with the help of La Cocina, they launched their own business, Oyna Natural Foods. Oyna is a verb meaning to dance.

AISAN HOSS: Situation in Iran, it's very complicated.

DEL BARCO: In post-revolutionary Iran, authorities can prosecute people for dancing they deem indecent or immoral. So from the age of 12, Hoss had to dance in private studios. Parnia had to listen to his favorite band, Metallica, in secret. They fell in love as teenagers in Tehran and moved briefly to London so she could study dance freely. Back in Tehran, Mehdi built a studio for his wife's underground dance school.

HOSS: I started with one student. After a month, I had 100 students. So getting popular like that in a short time, it was not safe for me at that time.

DEL BARCO: Hoss says she was once interrogated about a TV interview she did outside the country.

HOSS: Yeah, I was in trouble. And that became one of the reasons that I just started thinking I have to just stop this because it can go worse.

DEL BARCO: Seven years ago, they left their family and friends behind for a new life in California. While they grow their food business, Hoss continues to perform what she calls Iranian contemporary dance. These are just two of the stories featured in La Cocina's new cookbook.

Since 2005, the nonprofit group has offered up-and-coming chefs financial and technical advice and space at their subsidized commercial kitchen in the Mission district. Executive Director Caleb Zigas says as many as eight businesses can work in the kitchen space at any one time, prepping for a farmer's market, corporate catering gigs or weddings - or making and packaging food products.

CALEB ZIGAS: It's just an incredible and exciting range of techniques, flavors, perspectives, age, language. And that's a really beautiful thing. But I think we would be doing a disservice to the reality of the space if we also didn't talk about how tense that can be, to have that many different people from different places in the world come together, certainly with a shared purpose.

DEL BARCO: On this day, the kitchen is calm. Lamees Dahbour, a single mother who survived a violent marriage, prepares a Ramadan feast.

LAMEES DAHBOUR: This is yummy, traditional Palestinian dish called maqluba.

DEL BARCO: Rosa Martinez, who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border more than once, cooks up specialties from her native Oaxaca.

ROSA MARTINEZ: This is my dream, to bring the people to eat the food that I make with love.

DEL BARCO: And native San Franciscan Shani Jones, who has roots in Jamaica and New Orleans, hand-folds her Jamaican patties, savory pastries filled with beef, chicken or veggies. Jones and her Ethiopian husband now run a small kiosk for their business, Peaches Patties.

SHANI JONES: That's the ultimate goal, to be, like, the patty kingpin of the West Coast.

DEL BARCO: Many of La Cocina's alumni now have their own restaurants, and two of them were even semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Award. The organization hosts onstage storytelling events with their chefs. And La Cocina plans to open a marketplace in the city's Tenderloin district.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, San Francisco.

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