Chiefo Chukwudebe of started Chiefo's Kitchen to bring the flavors of West African nations to San Francisco. Photo by Laura Wenus

With some 50,000 guests expected, La Cocina is simmering with preparations for Saturday’s Street Food Festival on Folsom Street. The annual event, one of the Mission’s culinary highlights, features many of the Bay Area’s stellar restaurateurs, James Beard award winners and Michelin-starred chefs. But for the 40-odd cooks at La Cocina’s incubator program–most of them low-income immigrant women who rent workspace in the kitchen at a third of market rate–it’s an exciting opportunity to showcase their wares and potentially kickstart their businesses.

So with only a few days to go, the cooks in La Cocina were making a “mad dash for mass production,” as staffer Michelle Fernandez put it Tuesday morning. The staff has done much to expedite the down-to-the-wire effort. La Cocina has staggered cooking times to prevent workspace overcrowding, and set up offsite freezer storage for premade foods.

Still, the kitchen is humming with the sounds of mixers and stovetops, all of it underneath a warm crust of cooks’ chatter. Steam rises from two enormous stockpots, and the air fills with the aroma of at least four different cultures’ signature spices. Deft fingers shape thousands of tamales, pupusas and momos—the dumplings of Nepal. Whatever the dish, everyone’s goal is to entice new customers to taste her food, or beat her own sales from previous years.

At the workstation for Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, women clad in green smocks methodically work dough and portion out stuffing. When they run out, they briskly empty liters of oil and jugs of blended cilantro into the Hobart, the industrial-size mixer churning away in the corner. A few cooks begin to cough as the sharp vapors from mounds of peppers they are slicing sting their throats.

Alicia Villanueva, who also sells her tamales at street food festivals like Off the Grid and SoMa Streat Food Park, began by going door-to-door with her food when her husband lost his job. What started as a way to make ends meet is now becoming her family business—and a source of pride. As her slogan, composed in collaboration with the La Cocina team, proclaims, “The best tamales are stuffed with love, and the best people are stuffed with my tamales.”

Villanueva’s team is cooking 2,500 tamales in preparation for Saturday’s festival. It’s taxing, but she says it’s worth it.

“I feel all these beautiful feelings of stress, but it’s a nice stress,” she said.

That might be contested on the other side of La Cocina’s dividing wall of ovens, grills and hot plates, where pupusas are coming off the griddle. Luis Estrada, one of only three men in the bustling kitchen and the co-owner of D’Maize, circulates in the small workspace, tugging at his shirt to dispel the heat, giving employees an instruction here, a correction there. Women hurry around him with sweat-stained shirts and bits of grated cabbage clinging to their arms. Another man plunges his arms elbow-deep in a tub of raw marinating chicken, while a volunteer culinary student pushes thick carrots through a grater, producing buckets of the tangy slaw that adorns the stuffed corn cakes.

A few steps away, a cook samples a crispy bite of pupusa and smiles her approval; another unfurls sheets of plastic wrap from a roll with the flourish of laying a tablecloth, and covers the tins filled with finished pupusas. Zenaida Merlin, Estrada’s wife and business partner, comes by to chat, laying a gentle hand on the shoulder of the nearest cook.

Against a wall, Chiefo Chukwudebe and two volunteer helpers are demolishing sacks of yellow onions—chopping each one in half, peeling it, and throwing it in a bucket, all in a matter of seconds. Chukwudebe, born in the US but raised on her father’s farm in Nigeria, says that her cuisine is a mix of both cultures that she’s been developing since she started cooking at the age of six.

This is her first day of production for the festival, and she’s a little nervous because she wants to be ahead of the game: She needs to have a substantial stockpile of fried pea fritters with habanero sauce and plantain and rum bread pudding by Saturday. Food festivals are stressful, but Chukwudebe, who runs a catering business, hopes to have some fun. “There has to be a part where you start enjoying it,” she insists.

Someone taps me on the shoulder and hands me a bowl of dumplings in a creamy tomato sauce.

“You have to eat them hot, hot, hot!” says Bini Pradhan, a lively and efficient woman who, by her estimate, has produced some 17,000 momos for the festival. These are swirled little Nepalese dumplings whose filling is spiced by Pradhan’s own hand-ground mixtures. Pradhan’s mother used to cook for the royal Nepalese family; now, says Pradhan, herself a single mother, the La Cocina staff is like family to her.

Meanwhile, in La Cocina’s front office, staffers Michelle Fernandez and Brent Johnson lean into their laptop screens. Johnson is the Culinary Manager, a job that, he explains only partly tongue-in-cheek, means, “I’m the Dude…I try to be omnipresent.” Fernandez and a colleague are tweeting to promote the food festival and La Cocina’s role in it. The event takes careful planning, especially since it has to be organized on a nonprofit budget, Fernandez says. And, this year, they’ve added a Friday night fried chicken event at SoMa StrEat Food Park “because we like to torture ourselves,” she says with a grin. Staff also assist the cooks with business planning, marketing and outreach as they begin to offer catering and sell their products to local retailers.

Saturday marks the festival’s last appearance at its longtime home on Folsom Street. It’s not clear where in the city the future will take this tradition. But at La Cocina, the budding businesswomen are excited for what’s to come.

“All the doors are open to me,” Villanueva said. Pradhan echoed that sentiment. “I see all these [opportunities] like hanging in trees,” she said, motioning as if she were picking fruit. “And I just have to reach out and grab them.”

Follow Us

Leave a comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published.