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Respecting Non-Formal Culinary Education Is One Way to Empower Women Chefs of Color

How Across Our Kitchen Tables serves the women of Los Angeles

Valeria Velazquez Duenas (l) and Jocelyn Ramirez, co-founders of Across Our Kitchen Tables

In the food world, from cooking shows to celebrity chefs, it can seem like there’s only one path to break into the industry — by going to culinary school and rising from there. But for those that grow up in immigrant communities, where food and cooking can be a centerpiece in the family crest, working with and around food can come more naturally. People in less formal restaurant environments often hit the ground running, able to prepare dishes that they grew up with as a form of income for their family.

“They may or may not have a permit or an Instagram page, but they’re amazing chefs and cooks,” chef Valeria Velazquez Duenas says. “It’s not always art for art’s sake.”

Velazquez Duenas is one of those chefs that didn’t walk the traditional path. Her parents owned a restaurant and she transitioned into the food industry following her plant-based cuisine training. After launching her Los Angeles catering business Cocina House, she jumped into vending food at community events and festivals to build her business.

Over time Velazquez Duenas started sharing vital resources and lessons with other women in her network that like her, didn’t have a formal culinary background. For these women chefs and burgeoning entrepreneurs, the goal wasn’t to learn special techniques in the kitchen, but rather to share information about how to grow and fund food businesses, from catering to private chef work, to social justice and retail.

“Together, we had a lot of information, but separately, they were things that we still struggled with within our respective businesses,” Jocelyn Ramirez says. Also a vegan chef, Ramirez was able to launch her plant-based business Todo Verde after learning more about sourcing investment. Across Our Kitchen Tables (AOKT) was created two years ago from this mutual desire to share skills and connect at an annual symposium, where founders Velazquez Duenas, Ramirez, and Claudia Serrato invite food entrepreneurs to connect. Their initiative was to make business resources accessible to women chefs of color who, without an institution-centered education, might miss out on such insights.

Across Our Kitchen Tables works with event participants to workshop business plans, plan recipe development, raise capital, adopt tips for food photography, and learn about ethical sourcing, wellness, licensing, and more.

“A lot of the women that come to our events want to address food insecurity or food deserts, so these voices aren’t marginalized or tokenized in the media,” Velazquez Duenas says. “Talking about those communities adds texture to the conversation around food.”

A 2017 Eater report showed that women hold only 21 percent of head chef positions across the U.S. In those environments, Ramirez says, “it’s hard for women of color to find their voice within those spaces and feel heard.”

Velazquez Duenas agrees. “There’s this whole universe of women of color chefs that have been doing the work, but also getting involved in social justice organizations. Each of us has different levels of privilege and access, and we feel a responsibility for our communities to address these social justice issues,” she says.

AOKT includes food justice and policy as one of the areas covered in their skillshare resources and symposium.

“It’s important to begin to demystify these ideas behind our current way of understanding and knowing food,” Serrato, chef and co-founder of Native-based catering company Cocina Manakurhini, says. “I used to say that I didn’t have a culinary background, and now I’ve learned to own it. That’s something AOKT does. It empowers us to say, ‘I come from a culinary background. It may not be formal, but it’s rooted from the generation before me through indigenous and cultural traditions.’”

“This is how we practice our culinary activism,” Serrato says. “We’re challenging colonial models that have been established through formal culinary institutions as the only way to achieve any kind of [fame].”

That’s at the heart of the Los Angeles-based organization — to demystify and make a safe space for women of color to tackle these food-driven conversations and empower each other through their resources.

“When you feel like you have a solid business and you’re growing it in a way that makes you feel legit, you feel more confident in general,” Ramirez says.

Serrato says that initially, they expected the women that approached the event series to be chefs, but the demographics have surprised her and the team. The symposium and workshops have attracted food photographers, food bloggers, recipe testers, food stylists, and cookbook authors. The attendees are mostly under 40 years old since they reach the community through social media.

“I was surprised, since we thought everybody that was going to come was because they were opening a food-based business,” Serrato says. “There’s a whole spectrum of how you can be engaged with food.”

Their second annual symposium comes to fruition this weekend, on September 29, with the theme of “Build Your Own Table.” The AOKT team hopes to grow from last year’s 100 attendees while reducing the number of panels to create more in-depth learning and networking experiences. The one-day event dives into sharing more about technology, social media, and investment dollars for attendees to scale their platforms. Eventually, the co-founders would like to move the programming beyond an event series to a permanent in-person presence, inspired by San Francisco nonprofit incubator La Cocina.

The organization is exploring different options and business models, including commercial kitchen space to incubate businesses. Ideally, AOKT chefs would be able to produce their food, connect with their audiences, and grow their brands with like-minded businesses and a tangible infrastructure.

“There are a lot of opportunities moving forward. We could provide more support as a full-time project,” Ramirez says. “But we would have to make sure that we can financially support that model.”

Muriel Vega is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. Oriana Koren is a Los Angeles-based photographer and writer.