Culture Kitchen cooks up ethnic exchange
Culinary classes bring together immigrant-women chefs and food lovers
Abby Sturges didn't cook while growing up in Columbus, Ohio, but now her life is filled with the aromas, flavors and sensations of food: savory chicken with Indian spices, Vietnamese caramelized catfish and stir-fried garlicky greens.
Sturges and Stanford classmate Jennifer Lopez turned a graduate thesis project into a business with a social mission: connecting lower-income immigrant women who are skilled in cooking authentic, ethnic cuisines with food lovers who want to learn the culinary arts.
Their fledgling business, Culture Kitchen, was part of angel investor Dave McClure's 500 Startups Accelerator program in Mountain View this summer.
Culture Kitchen serves up cooking classes with a side order of cultural exchange. Women who have a passion for food, its history and culture teach their family recipes and traditions at Deborah's Palm and Lucie Stern Community Center in Palo Alto, at Whole Foods Market in Los Altos and in San Francisco.
The women, who go by their first names, come from Thailand, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ukraine, Vietnam, Iraq, Bangladesh, India, France, Taiwan and Mexico. They range in age from their 20s to their 60s, but all bring generations of cooking experience, Sturges said.
Linh, a Vietnamese immigrant, grew up "with an army of aunts" who instilled in her traditional Vietnamese cooking skills, Sturges said. And Letty, an immigrant from Colombia, learned to cook and love vegetables as a child from a cookbook written by her mother, "Chupa los dedos comiendo verduras (Lick your fingertips eating vegetables)."
Some of the women, such as India-born Aradhita, formerly catered for friends, but they aren't professional chefs, Sturges said. "We look for women who are really passionate about their cooking and the history behind it. The women wanted people to learn about their culture. Most people don't really have an opportunity to learn that."
Sturges also thinks the Culture Kitchen fills a craving for her American students. "You're learning to cook from the grandmas you've always wished you had," she said.
The idea for Culture Kitchen came during a spring-break dinner Sturges and Lopez shared. The women were back from an overseas program on "entrepreneurial design for extreme affordability," she said. Sturges worked on a sanitation project in Kenya; Lopez was in Myanmar developing a marketing project for treadle pumps — an inexpensive device for pumping water.
Although continents apart, they discovered a common experience:
"The most interesting part of the trip was when we went into the homes of people in their villages. We were able to bond with people of very different cultures over food," said Sturges, who graduated this summer with a master's degree of fine arts in design.
Back in the United States, Sturges and Lopez interviewed immigrant women about the role food played in their lives.
"I want people to know that Muslims are good," Sturges recalled that an Iraqi woman said when asked why she wanted to teach a cooking class.
Linh's parents come from the north and south of Vietnam, which have very different culinary traditions. In the north they use utensils, but in the south they eat with their hands, Sturges said. When the family gathers, there are cooks from the north, south and central part of the country, all with their own distinct ways of doing things.
"My mom would marvel at how my dad would add boiled green onions instead of fresh bean sprouts and basil to his pho, and my dad would be almost offended at my mom's use of sugar in her stews," Linh wrote on Culture Kitchen's website blog.
"Whenever Auntie No. 5 from Hue (southerners and centralers don't use names, just their rank) would walk by a dipping sauce or a pot, she would surely add a couple more spoonfuls of chili paste or one or two extra peppers." But despite the culinary differences, everyone had a great time and got along, she added.
It's stories such as these that enrich the Culture Kitchen experience, Sturges said. "People are able to relate to the stories these women share. It's a much more personal way to learn about those cultures and the way things are practiced in those cultures."
Culture Kitchen also empowers the chefs by providing income, opportunities to share their cultures and to connect to their adopted country through a shared love of food, she said.
Afterwards chef and students share a meal. During a recent class on Indian cooking, the students, all of whom had traveled to India, shared their experiences, Sturges said.
Aradhita will teach a class on a special-occasion Indian feast at Deborah's Palm, 555 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto, at 6:15 p.m. on Nov. 2. and Yulie will teach Taiwanese cooking at Whole Foods Market at 4800 El Camino Real in Los Altos at 6:15 p.m. on Nov. 9.
Sturges said she takes one trip each year to another country and bases it around food. But she didn't have to go far to find a meaningful connection.
"I missed home cooking when I was at college, so I called my mom for her recipes," she said.
Info: For more, go to culturekitchensf.com or call 415-689-6642.