Some of the chefs featured in the 'We Are La Cocina' cookbook.
We Are La Cocina features chefs, many immigrants and women of color, who have taken part in the La Cocina food incubator program. Photo: Chronicle Books

La Cocina, the food incubator nonprofit based in San Francisco’s Mission district, recently released a cookbook highlighting more than 40 local chefs — almost all women — who have been a part of its program. The organization, which primarily works with immigrant women and women of color entrepreneurs, has helped launch the careers of award-winning chefs like Nite Yun (Nyum Bai) and Reem Assil (Reem’s California).

We Are La Cocina: Recipes In Pursuit of the American Dream (Chronicle Books) opens with a foreword by Chilean American author Isabel Allende, an early supporter of La Cocina.

“For most La Cocina entrepreneurs, a few recipes handed down from mothers and grandmothers were their only capital when they came to the United States. It seems almost magical that they can use those recipes as a means of self-expression, making a living, supporting their families, and preserving their culture. Through food, they too can aspire to the American Dream,” Allende wrote.

The cookbook includes 100 recipes accompanied by striking photos of the dishes and the chefs who created them. The images were taken by award-winning food photographer Eric Wolfinger, an early volunteer at La Cocina.

Authors Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa are also both longtime La Cocina staff members. The two bring each chef’s stories to the forefront, shining a light on faces and stories that are not often represented and reflected in cookbooks, of immigrants and refugees who’ve become entrepreneurs through careers in the kitchen. Some chefs are young, other are older — mothers, aunts and grandmothers who have been cooking for decades.

“This was a collective effort,” Zigas said about the making of the book. “The book has been a project on our minds for some time. Obviously, we admire the entrepreneurs a lot. A lot of them haven’t always gotten the attention [they deserve].”

While La Cocina participants regularly get featured in food press, they aren’t always elevated to “chef” status. Zigas said one of the best parts of touring for this cookbook has been seeing chefs get their dues. “People are talking about them as chefs.”

Another notable aspect of the book is it does not shy away from telling some of the more painful struggles experienced by some of the chefs. Several have been victims of domestic violence; others escaped war and other horrors. The book lets each chef tell their story in their own voice.

All La Cocina alumni and current members were invited to be a part of the cookbook, but the list was culled down to 40. Volunteer recipe testers helped narrow down the list by trying out submitted recipes. The final compilation was developed and written by Yewande Komolafe, a Nigerian-American chef and food stylist. After spending a month cooking alongside chefs in their home kitchens, in their restaurants and in the La Cocina kitchen, Komolafe standardized each recipe for publication.

As La Cocina was founded in San Francisco, many of those featured are based there, but several call the East Bay home.

Oakland’s Reem Assil shares recipes for fattoush (Arabic peasant salad), sfeeha (lamb pastries), and muhammara (roasted red pepper dip).

Tina Stevens, the baker behind A Girl Named Pinky shares a recipe for carrot cake in 'We Are La Cocina.'
Tina Stevens, the baker behind A Girl Named Pinky shares a recipe for carrot cake with cream cheese frosting in ‘We Are La Cocina.’ Photo: Eric Wolfinger

Lamees Dahbour of Mama Lamees and Fernay McPherson of Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement both have locations in Emeryville’s Public Market. You can now make McPherson’s mac and cheese and rosemary fried chicken at home, thanks to the cookbook. Dahbour, who is Palestinian-American and left war-torn Kuwait, shares recipes for maqluba (upside down layered rice cake with vegetables) and samak mashwe bilforn (oven-baked fish).

Dilsa Lugo of Los Cilantros in Berkeley includes recipes for sopes (thick masa cakes) and equites (toasted corn). Tina Stevens of A Girl Named Pinky, who has a bakery kiosk at the La Cocina’s food hall at UC Berkeley’s MLK Student Union, offers a recipe for carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.

Nite Yun has received numerous accolades for her restaurant Nyum Bai, which started in Emeryville and is now in the Fruitvale Village, Oakland. The book includes recipes for neorm sach moan (Cambodian chicken salad), bai sach chrouk (pork and rice), and kuy teav Phnom Penh (Cambodian noodle soup).

For Yun, cooking is not just about feeding people, but about starting conversations. “I want people to experience Cambodian food, and I hope because of that they will want to learn more about the country. Ask questions,” Yun writes in a note with her recipe for Cambodian noodle soup. “It’s also a way for new Cambodian generations to come together.”

Nite Yun’s <i>Neorm Sach Moan</i> (Cambodian chicken salad).
Neorm Sach Moan, or Cambodian chicken salad, by chef Nite Yun of Nyum Bai. Photo: Eric Wolfinger

Nite Yun’s Neorm Sach Moan (Cambodian Chicken Salad)

Serves 2 to 4

2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 bird’s eye chile, Thai chile or serrano chile, chopped with seeds
1/2 small red cabbage, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
1 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup Persian cucumber slices
2 cups cooked chicken, cut or pulled into large chunks
2 cups loose greens, mizuna or arugula
1 cup loosely packed Thai basil leaves (or regular basil)
3/4 cup loosely packed mint leaves
1/4 cup peanuts, roasted and chopped

Combine the sugar and water in a medium bowl and whisk to dissolve the sugar. Whisk in the fish sauce, vinegar, garlic, and chile.

In a separate bowl, combine the cabbage, bell pepper, cucumber, and chicken. Add half the dressing and toss to combine. Add the loose greens, basil leaves, and mint and toss again.

Divide evenly among serving plates, drizzle the remaining dressing over each plate, and top with chopped peanuts. Any remaining dressing can be refrigerated for another use.

To taste bites prepared by more than 50 La Cocina chef’s, cross the bay to attend La Cocina’s San Francisco Street Food Festival, taking place Oct. 12.

Recipe and photos reprinted from We Are La Cocina by Leticia Landa and Caleb Zigas with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019

Momo Chang is an award-winning freelance journalist, multimedia storyteller and digital expert based in Oakland, CA. She is a contributor to Nosh, has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Shondaland,...