The story of how Dilsa Lugo launched Berkeley catering company Los Cilantros starts in Cuernavaca in the Mexican state of Morelos where she grew up.
Her family had a vegetable garden outside of town, where her father grew corn, beans, chilies, lemons, mangoes and more.
Her mother, who had nine kids to feed, cooked fresh tortillas on an open fire every day.
Lugo’s family farmed and cooked together out of economic necessity and enjoyed the flavors of a homegrown harvest and the pleasures of the table. As a child, she liked to help in the garden and the kitchen.
In college, where she studied horticulture, she became schooled in the dangers of pesticides to farm workers, consumers, and the environment.
Before leaving Mexico seven years ago, she ran a successful greenhouse business selling plants, including poinsettias and marigolds, for festive occasions.
She landed in Berkeley with her husband, embraced the organic food movement, and lamented the lack of authentic Mexican eateries that offered organic food. So she began to make her own.
Her tamales, tacos, and tortillas proved a big hit with her husband’s co-workers in construction.
Maybe, she thought, she could start a food business here. But first Lugo attended the Berkeley Adult School, where she took English classes. There she learned about a program for aspiring cooks looking to land employment in the food industry called The Bread Project.
While participating in that program, she heard about and subsequently received support from La Cocina, a nonprofit commercial kitchen and food business incubator in San Francisco that helps low-income female food entrepreneurs formalize and grow their own businesses.
Lugo toyed with the idea of starting a Mexican bakery but opted, instead, to run her own catering company which she dubbed Los Cilantros in honor of the pungent herb that flavors much of Mexican cuisine.
The 36-year-old lives in West Berkeley with her family, including a school-age son and a brand-new baby. We spoke at her home a couple of weeks ago.
Can you describe your cooking style?
Very traditional, very simple, using the best ingredients I can find. I make tacos with Niman Ranch meat, fresh, from scratch salsa, and homemade tortillas. Also sopes, small, thick, tortillas with toppings like refried beans, chicken, or mushrooms. Our roasted elote or corn on the cob is a very popular street food. We coat it with a little mayonnaise and add queso cotija (a hard and salty cheese) and chili powder.
What was The Bread Project like?
It was an excellent training program: Every day from 8 until 4:30, five days a week for two months, I learned how to bake breads, cookies, cakes, you name it. To this day the staff there have been helpful to me in my business.
How has La Cocina helped your business?
I’ve learned a lot about cooking, of course, like how to adapt recipes to make big quantities and working on a larger scale. The culinary director Jason Rose introduced me to new ingredients. We had a class, for instance, on cooking with different salts.
But I’ve also learned a tremendous amount from the director, Caleb Zigas, and others about the business end. They really stress having a solid business plan at La Cocina and doing your research. They want you to succeed. And I’ve gotten referrals for work, including my first big party, a wedding, through the program.
Where do you sell your food?
We cater private parties, festivals, and events. We’ve cooked at the San Francisco Street Food Festival and the Eat Real Festival in Oakland.
In Berkeley we’ve worked the Solano Stroll and the 4th of July Festival at the Marina. We catered a recent PTA meeting at King Middle School, where we served tacos, tamales, corn, and aqua fresca. It seemed to go over well.
Have you had any high-profile clients?
I’ve cooked for Isabel Allende in her home in Marin. It was an honor. I’ve read all her books, she’s an incredible storyteller. She is also a lovely person — and she’s a good cook herself. I catered three dinner parties for her last year and thank goodness she really liked the food.
Do you have tips for people who want to make Mexican food at home?
Buy the fresh masa from Primavera at the Saturday farmers’ market. It’s very good. It sells out, so go early. When corn is in season we get it from Catalan Family Farm. Maria Catalan is so impressive, she’s the first Latina woman to own her own farm in the U.S. Her father, who returned to Mexico, is from exactly where I come from. We also get our chilies, nopales (cactus), and, of course, cilantro from her.
I’d like to bring authentic Mexican cuisine into the schools and teach kids how to cook using organic ingredients in places like the Mission District of San Francisco, Oakland, and at Cragmont Elementary, my son’s school. I’d also like to have a taco truck and sell my organic food on the go.