2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Emiliana Puyana: Cooking up the American Dream

This week on The Trip podcast: empowering women in food with La Cocina’s Emiliana Puyana.

Ah, the sounds of BART; that eerie, windy, whoosh. The mangled station announcements. The freight-car clacking. If you know it, you know. I was riding BART—Bay Area Rapid Transit—to school starting in the 6th grade, and over all those years, I never loved it, but always loved where it might take you, from the altiplano high desert of the far East Bay to hotbox Berkeley to the wantonly gorgeous Embarcadero waterfront. And it always, always was the way to get to the Mission District, running straight as an arrow underneath Mission Street, dropping you at either 16th or 24th Street. Either stop, you’d take the escalator up and immediately be in an open-air kitchen, and lord it was a long time ago so I can’t remember if it was always gorditas or pupusas or churros but it seems like anything that could be fried would be, anything that was good, there it was, sold by the Central American and Mexican women who had prepared it all by hand and by heart.

What of those women? That was the early 90s. How did they survive the real estate apocalypses of San Francisco to come? How do they and women like them get to see the rewards of the boom days of a clearly food-obsessed town? How do they play a role in rectifying the gross inequality facing women, particular immigrants and women of color in the food industry? I got an answer for you, or at least the start of one: La Cocina.

Emiliana Puyana is program manager at La Cocina, and her job is to find the right entrepreneurs and give them power. Financial backing, business planning, moral support. La Cocina has worked now with dozens and dozens of ambitious, talented women and people of color in food, to get them the tools to make it in the Bay. Their grantees are, as Emiliana put it, are eating awards like candy. Emiliana is incredibly well-suited to her role because she was there herself, a La Cocina grantee who took the love of food she got from growing up in Venezuela and turned it into a career, then a business, and now a calling. We drank Negronis and talked about it all.

Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Emiliana. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nathan Thornburgh: Emiliana.

Emiliana Puyana: Yes.

Thornburgh: What have you brought to drink?

Puyana: I have brought my favorite cocktail, which I mixed this morning at 6 a.m. Before I left the East Bay. I have not tried it yet, but it’s a Negroni.

Thornburgh: It’s a Negroni? You know who’s favorite cocktail that was besides you. But Anthony Bourdain. Founding partner of this podcast was a Negroni fiend.

Puyana: Nice. Also my father’s favorite cocktail.

Thornburgh: Man, deep lineage here. That’s very exciting. And it was mixed early in the morning. Do you go heavier on the alcohol when it’s a 6:00 a.m. pour or are you just like, “Oh man, is this really gonna happen?”

Puyana: I don’t know. You know, my girlfriend gave me a funny look when she saw me open the liquor cabinet at 6 a.m.

Not that long ago, Venezuela was per capita the highest consumer of pasta of any nation in the world.

Thornburgh: You’re wearing a Corona-style hat that says Caracas. So this is your father’s favorite drink going back to Venezuela? That was his jam?

Puyana: That was his jam.

Thornburgh: Is there a strong Negroni culture in Venezuela? Or is this something like, “Let’s be Italians now.”

Puyana: There are a lot of Italians in Venezuela. A ton of Italians came to Venezuela after the war. Not anymore because sadly the situation in Venezuela is, well, difficult, but not that long ago, Venezuela was per capita the highest consumer of pasta of any nation in the world.

Thornburgh: Holy crap.

Puyana: So we eat a lot of pasta in all sorts of weird ways. We’re talking mayo and ketchup. We’re talking tuna. We’re talking seafood with a lot of cheese. You know, Italians maybe wouldn’t approve, but pasta and also blended scotch.

Thornburgh: Really?

Puyana: Highest per capita consumer of any nation.

Thornburgh: I mean it’s not a bad life, right? Pasta with ketchup and blended scotches. I remember from Cuba, they certainly had a lot, lot fewer resources than Venezuela did back then, but they were just pasta fiends. The idea of Italian food was for them really transporting in this kind of a very charming way.

You were born in Caracas. You started cooking there?

Puyana: I was actually born in New York. My folks are both Venezuelan, born and raised. But my father was working in New York in the early 80s and both my older brother and I were born there. I lived in New York until about [the age of] five, but then went back to Venezuela and was raised there.

Thornburgh: And that’s when you first started getting into hospitality, cooking, food, was down there.

Puyana: Yes. I’ve always really loved food. It’s a big part of my culture. And I would say in general, most Latin culture, to sit around a table with family and eat. And particularly in my household, in my family, Sundays were sacred. I have these memories of waking up in the morning with music coming up from downstairs and it was some old school boleros or something like that. And then the smell would hit me and, I’d get downstairs and my mom and dad would be starting to cook something for aunts and uncles that were coming. That’s how I got into cooking

Thornburgh: So you were into food kind of emotionally through your family story. You ended up coming back to the States when, how did you get here?

Puyana: I came to the states in 1996. It’s been a while. I ended up going to boarding school in Connecticut. And after boarding school came time to go to college, and for me naturally it was culinary school, as opposed to a traditional university. And after that came work, and I’ve been here ever since.

Thornburgh: So you went to the Culinary Institute of America?

Puyana: I did. I had a really positive experience. I had already been working in kitchens, but I’d never worked in an American kitchen. So that was my first introduction to what my career might potentially look like in the U.S. And being from the Caribbean and the tropics, it’s different rhythm.

Thornburgh: For sure.

Puyana: But overwhelmingly it was good. I learned a ton in a really, really short period of time and enjoyed it.

Thornburgh: What did it set you up for? You went to New York right after to try to cook there?

Puyana: No, I actually came back to San Francisco. So back when I went to CIA you did an internship kind of halfway through and you spent six months at a restaurant. And I had just taken a tour of Hudson Valley Foie as a part of a school trip. And they were talking about this crazy restaurant in San Francisco that was using more foie than anybody else. And it was a place called La Folie. And it’s really a tiny restaurant. It’s been around now for a really long time in San Francisco with a really, really good reputation. Very, very old school French. And I said, “I have to go there.” And when I got there, I quickly found out why they were going through more foie than anybody else. Because at the time a portion of foie gras was three slices of a lobe. It was three orders to a foie.

Thornburgh: They were just giving it away by the truckload.

Puyana: Giving it away. Yeah. Doing what I do now. I don’t understand how he made a penny.

Thornburgh: He had a connect, man. He had foie falling off the truck somewhere. That’s amazing. I fucking love that response. That somebody said, “You know, there’s a place that serves more foie per capita than any restaurant on earth.” And you’re like, “Damn it, I’m there. Let’s get that.”

Thornburgh: So what did you learn? What did you learn coming to a this foie festival?

Puyana: Whew. I learned what starting work at 10:00 a.m. and leaving work at 1:00 a.m. felt like. I did that for six months. I learned what being one of the only women in a kitchen felt like. I learned not to ask for help when my five-foot three-on-a-good-day frame couldn’t reach something up high. I learned to fend for myself. But I also learned a lot about cooking and discipline. Looking back at it now, that’s not the way I would run a kitchen. I don’t think it’s the best way to train people.

Thornburgh: Was it a old-school…

Puyana: Oh, yeah.

Thornburgh:  … kind of belittlement and just kind of pressing, boot on the neck kind of style?

Puyana: It was pressing. It was no shortcuts, no whining, get it done sort of style, top-down for sure.

Thornburgh: So you didn’t carry that dysfunction forward and take that and flick that on your next project?

Puyana: No, sadly I did. It took me some time to mature and settle into my own. To just gain my confidence and realize that I didn’t actually need to tell somebody I was better than them to be good. And that I’m actually not better than anybody, we’re just in the trenches, you know?

In San Francisco it felt like opening a restaurant was absolutely out of the question with the prices. So I started a pickling business.

I cooked my way through a number of different places in San Francisco. After La Folie, I worked for a time with Daniel Humm. He used to be the chef at Campton Place. Then I worked at a place called South House in San Francisco for some time. I was one of the opening cooks at a restaurant called Contigo. I took a little hiatus from the kitchen and went to work in the wine industry. I ran the food program at a wine bar. Not from a culinary perspective, but from a fun perspective. Probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I made a lot of great friends. For the first time made some tips, which was new for an old cook.

And I drank a lot of good wine. Learned a lot about wine, which I carry that knowledge with me now. And then I decided to step away from the kitchen and I wanted to do my own thing. And in San Francisco it felt like opening a restaurant was absolutely out of the question with the prices and whatnot. And so I decided to start a pickling business. And I actually went to La Cocina. I sat through one of their orientations. And then eventually applied for the program and got in and, and operated a pickling business. It was called Jarred SF Brine at La Cocina for about three and a half years before I decided that nobody actually wants to pay money for pickles. And closed that.

Thornburgh: What the fuck is wrong with you people? Pay money for pickles.

La Cocina really armed me with the belief that I had the power to do something for myself.

Puyana: Right?

Thornburgh: It’s vegetables plus time.

Puyana: Exactly. And I’m making a salad for you. You buy this red onion and then you have 17 salads.

Thornburgh: There you go. People are the worst. Pay for your pickles people. All right. So that’s a big moment for you. You’re a classically trained chef, have gone through all these different jobs in San Francisco and then all of a sudden you’re at the orientation of this program called La Cocina. What was that like for you? I mean, what had you known about them? And did you feel like this was some totally new adventure to kind of be on this as an entrepreneur in training? I don’t know.

Puyana: I didn’t know much about La Cocina other than I drove by it every day on my way home. I used to live, up until just a few months ago, right up the right up the street from La Cocina. And I sat at that orientation and I listened to, at the time, Caleb, who was the executive director, and Leticia who I think was the program manager at the time, give this orientation. And I was inspired. It really armed me with the belief that I had the power to do something for myself. That I no longer needed to work for the man, you know? Both literally and figuratively. And that I could go out, branch out on my own and make this happen. And so I went home, totally inspired, wrote a business plan, and applied.

Thornburgh: So that’s the great Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa, who were co-founders of La Cocina. How would you describe La Cocina, and now especially that you are a big part of the executive staff and working there, what’s the elevator version of what it is and what it does?

Puyana: La Cocina’s a nonprofit kitchen incubator. We work with women primarily from immigrant communities and communities of color and we support them in the process of formalizing food businesses. So people come to La Cocina with either an idea or an informal business and we provide them with a series of resources. Among them, mentoring classes and access to affordable commercial kitchen space. And we guide them as they formalize and grow their businesses.

We’ve now worked with over a hundred businesses at La Cocina. We currently have 32 brick and mortar locations in and around the San Francisco Bay area. Restaurant production facilities, things of that nature. We have currently, aside from those 32 businesses, 37 active program participants as well.

Thornburgh: That’s great. It feels very anomalous, right? It’s successful. It’s stable. It’s been going on for a long time. It should happen everywhere, but it doesn’t. And La Cocina feels like a very specific and special San Francisco thing. I wonder what it is about this town, about the Mission District where it came up, where I guess the need was just so great and then colliding with those good intentions that still survive in this city.

You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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