A Return To Our (Grass)Roots
How goodness becomes the new industry norm.
June 26, 2018 ● 5 min read
By Soleil Ho | Photos of STREETS! by Sana Javeri Kadri
On a sunny day in May, hundreds of people in West Oakland, California broke bread together at folding tables that stretched the length of a city block.
This first-ever STREETS! meal—organized by the People’s Kitchen Collective, a culinary group formed to counter white supremacy, imperialism, and gentrification in the food world—nourished the community at no cost to diners. “This is how we feed a revolution,” reads the event’s Facebook page.
Inspired by the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program of the late 60s, and the family meals that brought radical minds together at activist Yuri Kochiyama's home, guests passed around almond cake, pulled chicken, and a petition to reverse a neighbor’s eviction. During an interlude, one of PKC’s co-founders, Saqib Keval, took the mic and led the crowd in a chant. “Cooking together is radical; eating together is revolutionary!” he called, his voice crackling over of generator-powered speakers. The crowd grew buoyant, nodding and snapping their fingers and repeating his words aloud.
PKC co-founders Jocelyn Jackson, Saqib Keval, and Sita Bhaumik
When it was over, diners rose to applaud the many volunteers who’d cooked the food and cleared away their plates, and lingered long after the food was gone to talk about dreams for their city and the people in it.
Events like STREETS! are imperative right now. Those in the food industry have always understood the structural oppression behind the swinging door. Sometimes it’s a murmur about a habit of grabbing genitals, or a list of those who turn a blind eye to blatant homophobia or racism among their staff.
But the whisper network isn’t just for knowing who to avoid—it also works when people are working hard to implement unconventional labor and hospitality models. The kind with equity, community, and social justice baked in from the beginning.
And that’s the question we face now: our industry having been finally exposed as vulnerable to harassment and oppression, how do we, as restaurant owners, workers, diners, and people in food media, ensure the culture of secrecy, alienation, and abuse is a thing of the past? What are the feasible alternatives? How do we build businesses and food spaces that are safe for everyone?
Some brave bakers, bartenders, and restaurateurs, as well as more artistic, event-focused groups like PKC, are attempting to provide answers to those questions by creating new ventures around the idea of changing traditional industry dynamics. Their efforts speak to purposeful inclusivity, workers’ rights, and truly safe spaces. Ellie Tiglao is in the midst of opening Tanám, a “food and art space” in Somerville, Mass. She plans to present a form of “narrative cuisine” that marries eating with storytelling and art.
“We really want to highlight the stories of people of color, and have the people who are telling those stories and making that food really have some place in the culture they’re trying to represent, and helping people break down this barrier between staff and diners,” Tiglao says.
Most of the people involved at Tanám are women of color, and many identify as queer. The worker-owned business is an integral part of their mission to combat racial inequality and empower people of color to be the ones making big decisions collectively—a rarity in the American food industry.
Modeled off of Tiglao’s previous project, the Boston-area popup series, Pamangan, which ran for four years, Tanám’s bread-and-butter will be ticketed 10-seat dining “experiences” three nights a week, and a kamayan, or Filipino feast, every Wednesday. Guests will eat from a menu tailored to the stories and art shared that night and will be encouraged to stay long after dinner to process the event together, without having to buy more food or drinks to justify their presence.
In Minneapolis, Minn., Dulce Monterrubio has carved out her own way to bring change to the local community. In 2017, she left her long-held position in academia to sell Mexican-style pastries and cakes like garibaldis, Mexican wedding cookies, and churros at a local farmer’s market. Now she’s opening a bakery called Dulceria, which aims to “bust the stereotype that all Mexicans eat is tres leches cake,” which she adamantly refuses to serve.
“Every pastry has a story. We aim to show, through the different items and flavors we present, the many different faces of Mexican culture,” says Monterrubio, who was raised in Mexico City. Her customers come to her not only for sweets but for a dose of knowledge as well—she makes an effort to contextualize all of the food she sells, talking to guests at length about the items’ origins and symbolic meanings. “This is a space that’s not for anyone to say, ‘Ooh I went to the exotic Mexican bakery!’ No, this is exactly what we have for breakfast every day!”
New cafes, especially bakeries, often signal an incoming wave of gentrification and displacement, but Dulceria is actually an homage to the existing community. She envisions the bakery as a safe, judgment-free space for marginalized people in her neighborhood, which has a large population of working-class Latinx and LGBTQ+ residents.
“This is a space for everyone that’s marginalized to come over and be safe,” Monterrubio says. Above all, she wants Dulceria to be a place where Mexicans can come in from the cold and feel proud of who they are. And if anything untoward happens, Monterrubio is prepared: “We have community members who are trained in peacefully de-escalating conflict that I’m able to tap for help.”
People’s Kitchen, Tanám, and Dulcería have all turned to crowd-sourcing to get their projects off the ground. Going this non-traditional route for funding is often a necessity for operations like theirs. It’s hard enough to raise the capital to open any food business, but it’s even harder to explain to a bank or investor that you plan to run yours in a way that isn’t built to generate huge profits by minimizing labor costs and turning tables quickly.
On the upside, crowdfunding generates a sense of ownership within communities, giving locals a chance to decide what kinds of businesses they want nearby. At a recent celebration in Minneapolis for backers of Dulcería’s Kickstarter, the excitement among funders was palpable as they sampled bite-sized versions of flan and guava cheesecake. As industry folks work steadfastly towards ushering in a new norm for the industry, word of their efforts spreads organically in throughout communities—a hallmark of good, old-fashioned grassroots.
While the restaurant world struggles to reclaim its soul, we must keep innovating new structures to carry us through. The reckoning isn’t just meant to rehabilitate certain personalities and restaurants while we continue the status quo. In pockets of the U.S., people like Dulce Monterrubio and Ellie Tiglao are reaching back into their communities from the gut, and making sure that, as Keval said at STREETS!, “the meal does not end at the table.”
In their hands, dining out won’t be purely transactional, reducing diners to the dollars they spend and staff to the cost of labor—rather, it can provide comfort and a sense of belonging. Like a real relationship, it’s meant to be unique, and complicated. Life-affirming.