Appetizers from Old Damascus Fare, one of many local food businesses incubated at La Cocina which is participating in this year’s Bay Area Book Festival. Photo: Molly Decoudreaux

This story is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival. It was written by Jeanne Cooper, The San Francisco Chronicle.

Kelp noodle salad. Bread off the saj, slathered in olive oil. Mexican staples made with fresh, local ingredients. And as a side dish: An amazing story.

Since 2005, Bay Area nonprofit La Cocina has helped kickstart almost 40 diverse and delicious eateries, including Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai, which was named one of Bon Appetit’s “Best New American Restaurants.” The kitchen space and incubator focuses its efforts on women and immigrant-led businesses, bringing home kitchens and street corner operations into the mainstream.

This year, La Cocina will showcase several of its businesses at the Bay Area Book Festival in downtown Berkeley, May 4-5, bringing a new dimension to the Festival.

Three of their booths — Old Damascus Fare, Noodle Girl and El Mesón de Violeta — will be familiar to patrons of Cal’s ASUC Student Union, where La Cocina runs the dining hall, according to Caleb Zigas, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit.

Of the others, Los Cilantros has had a business on Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue for five years, Zigas said, while Reem’s California in Oakland won a best new restaurant award from Food & Wine in 2017.

At Reem Assil’s Middle Eastern booth, Zigas said, look for the “hot, fresh bread coming off the saj… the warm bread being slathered with California olive oil is amazing.”

Hang Truong, the owner of Noodle Girl, is renowned for kelp noodle salad.

“She comes from a small island in Vietnam and she’s cooking the same food that her family restaurant there cooked,” Zigas said. “That’s really special.”

The family of Batool Rawoas, proprietor of Old Damascus Fare, left everything behind when they emigrated from Syria. Now their rich, hearty food “is the only connection with the land they left unwillingly,” he noted.

Many of the purveyors hail from families of readers and participate in community activism. “These women are not just cooks — they’re thinkers, they’re leaders — so it’s nice to be included in that conversation,” Zigas said.

“All the (La Cocina) vendors have stories,” noted Bay Area Book Festival director Cherilyn Parsons. “We reflect in food what we’re doing in our programming.”

La Cocina’s booths will be at the center of the the Festival’s Outdoor Fair, in Civic Center Park, next to the Word Power Stage.

Two food-related literary conversations take place on the free outdoor San Francisco Chronicle Stage in the park:

Notes From a Young Black Chef: Kwame Onwuachi
Saturday, May 4, 11:00 a.m.-noon
Kwame Onwuachi interviewed by Bryant Terry

Meet the all-star chef whose kitchen wizardry and unique flair for fusion were praised by food critic Bill Addison as “ignited and firing at peak level.” In Onwuachi’s remarkable culinary coming-of-age story, Notes From a Young Black Chef, he navigates the unwelcoming world of fine dining as a person of color, competes on “Top Chef,” and quickly bounces back from the failure of his first restaurant to become the executive chef of the wildly popular, D.C.-based Kith and Kin at only 28-years-old.

Season: An Interview with Nik Sharma
Sunday, May 5, 12:45-1:45 p.m.
Nik Sharma interviewed by Sandhya Dirks

Nik Sharma is the beloved curator of the award-winning food blog “A Brown Table.” In Season, his stunning new book, he shares a treasury of ingredients, techniques, and flavors that combine in a way that’s both familiar and completely unexpected. These are recipes that take a journey from India by way of the American South to California. Though the dishes will take home cooks and their guests by surprise, there’s nothing intimidating here. Season, like Nik, welcomes everyone to the table.

Check out the Festival’s full schedule of 250 notable authors in 100 literary events in downtown Berkeley. Outdoor events are free, and indoor events are accessed via a $15 General Admission Wristband all weekend, space available, or via $10 Priority Tickets to guarantee a seat in a particular session. The free Outdoor Fair offers stages, entertainment, lounges, children’s activities and other happenings.

This story was written by the Bay Area Book Festival. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Festival.