A round tablecloth with portraits of five women chefs.

The afternoon was cool and windy outside the California College of Arts and Crafts main building in San Francisco on Friday, but inside it was warm, hot even, as art and design students drained their last ounces of creative energy to get through final critiques of the semester.

In Melissa Ann Martin and Sanjit Sethi’s interdisciplinary community-based design class, students were juggling more than multiple disciplines. By standing in the kitchen and learning to make soup, they’d absorbed the intense and colorful life histories of women chefs from five different countries

Then, in groups of three or four, the students had to integrate heavy personal stories, recipes, and design principles to communicate these in an assignment.

The five women – from Malaysia, Nigeria, Mexico, El Salvador, and the United States – work with La Cocina, a Mission-based organization that incubates low-income food entrepreneurs, lowering the hurdle to enter the professional food service.

“It really became a flow of chopping, sautéing, talking,” Martin said of the hours students spent trying to understand the women’s stories through food.

Martin and Sethi wanted them to not only incorporate a rich cultural diversity, but also tell a story and give the women something they don’t already have, “not just a curio,” Sethi said.

“Food is not just an object of consumption,” Martin said. It transmits information.

Martin said she and Sethi warned them when the semester began that the class might not be for the faint of heart, delving into unfamiliar foods and requiring students to take apart a whole chicken.

One group produced a tablecloth composed of five foods, each reflecting a woman and her soup.

Another made booklets, hand-dyed and screen-printed with bright, fractal-like patterns created with maps of the country of origins. They packed the inside with a narrative of the soups and the life history. They imagined the women – all entrepreneurs – could use the whole package, with a CD of images, as a promotional device or press package.

“There were a lot of things we were trying to remedy,” said Erica Grossman, a sophomore studying textiles. Everyone came from different fields of study, they had to translate a person’s background through soup into a design product. Would that be an object or a graphic?

Martin said that this group began with a more sculptural idea and ended up shifting to a sort of visual language, images using existing La Cocina colors that could be used for business cards.

Students said they were surprised to learn of visual elements in the soup itself, like one woman who keeps her spices in a bag like tea, so they can be lifted out before the soup’s served.

Others were bowled over by different experience of immigrant women, who have faced scarcity and adversity – one had to escape through the jungles of El Salvador – unseen here in the United States.

The art, and soups, can be experienced for one day, Saturday, May 1 at 18 Reasons near Dolores Park.

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Anrica is a science reporter and twice Cal grad, with a degree in engineering and a master of journalism. She's a Bay Area native and lives in Oakland. She's enjoyed wide-ranging professional endeavors, including shoveling manure, researching human signaling proteins, volunteering in a leprosy hospital, using an atomic force microscope, and modeling the electricity grid.

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