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Celebrating Food And Entrepreneurship In San Francisco

27 Aug

La Cocina’s Fourth Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival

Sea of foodies on Folsom Street, San Francisco Street Food Festival, August 18, 2012

Last Saturday afternoon, within a week of moving to San Francisco, I found myself floating in a sea of 80,000 food lovers on Folsom Street in the Mission, for the Fourth Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival, presented by La Cocina, a nonprofit incubator kitchen whose mission is to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize their businesses with a focus on women of color and immigrant communities.

The Street Food Festival was foodie paradise, with over 80 vendors spread along six blocks, selling small bites for $3 and big bites for $8.  And I was wearing a walkie-talkie and a bright turquoise t-shirt that said CAPTAIN on the back, which basically meant I could do whatever I wanted, which was eat everything in sight; hand-pulled garlic bread with burrata from State Bird Provisions—served with a spicy summer tomato giardiniera—I ate two, the best damm cheeseburger from 4505 Meats, lumpia from Hapa SF, sweet potato fries from Liba Falafel, beyond spicy pork ribs from To Hyang, a chicken mole tostada from El Buen Comer, a peanut tofu taco from Azalina’s, sweet potato pie from Yvonne’s Southern Sweets, and a chocolate cupcake from La Luna Cupcakes

Hand-pulled garlic bread with burrata from State Bird Provisions

Founded in 2005, and led by executive director Caleb Zigas, La Cocina’s vision is that by supporting food entrepreneurs, they will become economically self-sufficient and contribute to a vibrant economy doing what they love.  There are currently 33 food businesses in the La Cocina incubator program, and 35 La Cocina businesses were serving at this year’s Street Food Festival.  The incubator program serves low-income entrepreneurs, and offers resources including affordable commercial kitchen space, mentoring in key business areas like online marketing and operations, access to farmer’s markets, catering jobs, and wholesale distribution, and other capital opportunities.  

Night Market at Alemany Market

I had the opportunity to volunteer at La Cocina for two days leading up to the Street Food Festival, and then welcome hungry (and chilly) guests as they entered the Night Market at Alemany Market last Friday night.  The Night Market, a fundraiser for La Cocina, featured dishes from over 20 vendors including empanadas made from scratch by El Sur that rivaled the scores of empanadas I used to eat while living in Buenos Aires, a Russian soup with cured meats and pickles by Anda Piroshki that stopped the Alemany wind and warmed the soul, and Korean braised oxtail with daikon, carrots, dates, and hard boiled egg, by To Hyang, which was so sweet and tender I had to sit down and close my eyes for five seconds. 

Bacon and peanut crusted chocolate cake pops by Matt Jennings, Farmstead

The day after the Street Food Festival, I volunteered at La Cocina’s Food & Entrepreneurship Conference at SOMArts Cultural Center.  The Conference featured panel discussions on female restauranteurs, introducing new ethnic food flavors, how to write effectively about your own food (you better write something really good on the label if you want me to buy your $8 chocolate bar), creating spaces for successful food entrepreneurship, and using technology and social media to grow your food business.  Delicious food was served as well, including bagels and gravlax cured to perfection by Sal de Vida Gourmet, honey lemon thyme biscotti from Saint & Olive, bacon and peanut crusted chocolate cake pops by Matt Jennings, and Nepalese chicken and rice cooked by Bini Adiga, owner of Bini’s Kitchen, one of La Cocina’s program participants. 

Adriana Almazán-Lahl, Founder of Sal de Vida Gourmet

All too often when we talk about food or go to food festivals or read “Tables For Two” in The New Yorker, we only hear about the pecorino and the foie gras and the pork belly and the $100 prix fixe.  In San Francisco—where there is no shortage of gourmet restaurants and craft food trucks and pop-ups serving all the delicacies that a foodie could dream of and more—La Cocina is working hard to ensure that celebrating food is about more than enjoying the burrata.  It’s important for all of us to remember that food is about building community; food is about bringing diverse groups together, empowering others, increasing access to affordable healthy and delicious food for all, and creating opportunities for low-income entrepreneurs, as they start food businesses and share their inspiring stories through food. 

Food trucks arrive early at La Cocina

To learn more about La Cocina, or if you are interested in applying for their incubator program, check out lacocinasf.org.

San Francisco Is Beautiful

16 Aug

(And other Week 1 observations from an East Coast transplant)

Dolores Park

Last Thursday morning I hopped on a Virgin America flight and moved from Boston to San Francisco, with two suitcases of clothes, my laptop, a frisbee, the July 23 issue of The New Yorker, a Timbuk2 shoulder bag that my sister gave me, and a neon green bike helmet. 

Have you ever flown Virgin America?  It’s bliss; it’s the closest a not-rich American like me can come to feeling like they’re doing all right in life.  You walk on the plane and it’s like you’re at a spa run by Thievery Corporation.  The overhead lights are purple.  Some real chill electronic music is playing in the background, and a cool breeze is flowing from above (or below—perhaps both).  The leather seats (in coach!) are comfortable, the leg room is spacious, the red pocket (which includes an inner mesh bag) is perfect for holding a magazine and a Moleskine and a water bottle, the latch on the tray table works perfectly, even the little red puke bag is cute.  By the time they play that wonderful animated safety video (“In the .0001% chance that you don’t know how to put on a seatbelt…”), everyone on the plane looks like they just got a massage.

The purple lights dim, and it’s time to sleep—or use the sauna— your choice.  I sleep, and when I wake up I read Junot Díaz’ piece The Cheater’s Guide To Love, which makes me feel slightly nervous about being single while all my friends are getting engaged and married, but his line, “When winter rolls in, a part of you fears that you’ll fold—Boston winters are on some terrorism shit—but you need the activity more than anything, so you keep at it…,” reaffirms my decision to move to California.  Junot Díaz is raw, brutal, and real; his prose oscillates between the casual and the prolific so naturally, so easily, that the conversation you just had at the bar with your boy, the conversation on the street between two nobodys, instantly becomes poetry. 

Then the pilot gets on the mic and says, “We’re about 30 minutes early as we make our descent into the San Francisco area.  That’s how we roll here at Virgin America.”  Indeed.  And I’m in California. 

People here are so nice, everyone is happy in San Francisco.

The first thing I notice about SF is that everyone here is so nice, so happy to be here, so happy to be alive.  Now, to be fair, I’m coming from spending the most of the previous 29 years of my life living on the East Coast, so a happiness comparison may be unfair. 

First, the Virgin America flight attendant strikes up a conversation with me as we’re making our descent, welcomes me to the Bay, and says “you’ve finally seen the light my friend, you’re gonna love it here!”  Then, when I’m getting my bags at baggage claim, a very attractive young woman strikes up a conversation with me, welcomes me to paradise, and offers to watch my bags while I check to see if my friend Zeb is there to pick me up.  When Zeb arrives he gives me a huge hug, and I throw my arms up in the air, kiss the sky, and scream “I LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO!” and another group of three (attractive) women give a rousing applause and respond, “Welcome, welcome to San Francisco!”  What is this, a fairy tale?  Have I died and gone to heaven?  (Yes.)

Usually, when I land at Logan Airport in Boston, I am greeted by a bitter bus driver yelling, “Get the fuck on the bus kid!  Next staaaap, South Station!  I didn’t have my ahhhh Dunkin ahhhh Donuts coffee this morning, and the Red Sox have lost three in a row, go fuck yaself!”  No such harshness in SF, only love. 

I never know what to wear.

Fog on the San Francisco Bay Trail

Weird does not even begin describe the weather in San Francisco.  Microclimates = what the fuck.  When I got off the plane at SFO wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I wished I had worn my cut-off shorts because it was 75 degrees and sunny, absolutely perfect weather.  Then, Zeb drove me up to Twin Peaks to check out the view of the city and the wind was brutal and I was like dammit, where’s my flannel shirt?  An hour later, we were sitting in the sun on a bench in Golden Gate Park and I was hot again and had to roll up my jeans. 

When we got back to my house in NoPA, the fog started to roll in and it felt like a storm was coming and I had to bust out my hoodie and slippers, my body was freezing.  Then, the next morning I had coffee sitting in the warm California sun, and it was once again, 75 degrees and sunny with a breeze.  But, sure enough, later that afternoon, the fog rolled in and I put on my fleece again.  So, yes, as the San Franciscans say:  always bring a jacket with you, always. 

San Francisco is beautiful.

Alamo Square Park

If anything, the constantly changing weather only increases the natural beauty of this city.  To watch the morning fog fade away to bright blue sky, on my morning run in the wild jungle that is Golden Gate Park, is a joy.  There is beauty everywhere you look (everywhere you look): the painted Victorians, the palm trees, the eucalyptus trees, laying out in the hot Mission sun starting at the city from Dolores Park, the fog obscuring all but the bottom third of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, the bikers zooming through the Panhandle, smiles on the faces of couples spending Sunday morning at Thorough Bread & Pastry, the avocado in my garlic shrimp burrito at Little Chihuahua (a gringo burrito, not a real burrito, I was told, but call me a gringo, it was delicious), the piece of mint perched on top of my cup of Philz coffee (no coffee has ever given me such a rush—I nearly ran down 24th St. like a mad man after three sips), the green compost bins in front of every house on trash day, beauty is everywhere in San Francisco. 

Nobody asks “what do you do?” 

Having spent the last three years living in Washington, DC, I grew accustomed to answering the requisite, “So what do you do?”  If you ever happen to find yourself anywhere in the Dupont Circle vicinity, it may take someone less than (not joking) five seconds to ask what you do.  In fact, I once met a woman in DC who asked me for my business card before she even shook my hand, before she even got my name, as if actually even meeting me was dependent on what my job title was. 

Not so in SF.  People just say hi to you and what’s up, and through the course of talking about what neighborhood you live in or where you used to live or what you’re interested in (walking around, climbing, biking, blogging, eating good food, gardening, coding, Beck, apps) you maybe get into “what do you do,” but that’s like 15-20 minutes into the conversation.  What someone does for money does not define them or their reason for being.  People out here would much rather talk about what they care about, and so would I. 

I have no idea what to call my neighborhood.

I live two blocks North of the Panhandle, in what, according to Google, is now called “NoPA.”  However, when I told a San Franciscan that I lived in NoPA, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s just what bourgeois people call it since there is a delicious restaurant called NOPA and the gentrifiers don’t like saying Western Addition.”  But then when I told another local that I lived in Western Addition, they were like, “Dude, you don’t live in Western Addition, you live in NoPA.”  Another friend just told me to play it safe and say, “By the Panhandle.” 

Call it what you will, it’s amazing, I love its mellow mood, the painted houses, my wonderful roommates, the smell of eucalyptus, and that I can basically step outside and be inside Golden Gate Park.

San Franciscans take their bikes and their bike signs seriously.  (Helmets, not so much).

I knew people in SF were into bikes, but I’m not sure I realized just how obsessed they were.  Everyone has a bike.  Everyone.   And not only that, everyone knows the bike routes, and the bike signals.  Riding on The Wiggle, a bike lane marked with bright green paint, which zig-zags for a mile from near my house in NoPA to Market St., following a posse of seven random bikers, all experts who used the correct bike signals and wiggled in unison, felt so progressive, so badass, so post-climate change, that I couldn’t help but wonder if I had suddenly been teleported to The Netherlands. 

I also noticed that while my biking companions each were riding $1000+ bikes and sporting $100+ Chrome shoulder bags, only two of them were wearing bike helmets.  The East Coaster in me nearly commented:  “Excuse me, hipster biker dude.  Your bike is a lot nicer than mine and you are intense with your biker bag, and you kind of scare me when you ride so fast.  But you might want to spend $30 on a bike helmet so you don’t embarrass yourself.”

But I didn’t, best to keep things West Coast when on The Wiggle. 

Garlic shrimp burrito at Little Chihuahua

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