The View from the Kitchen

Last week, I attended an event sponsored by the New York Times here in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center. Kim Severson, who recently won a Pultizer for her reporting on sexual harassment and the restaurant industry along with a team of writers, interviewed a panel of Bay Area based women chefs about the state of the restaurant industry in California. Reem Assil,  Dominique Crenn and Tanya Holland are three well respected restaurateurs/chefs who currently own and operate businesses here in the Bay Area.

Several themes emerged from the conversation. Of course, sexual harassment was central to the conversation. But something else came up which made a light bulb go off for me.  Tanya mentioned how difficult it is for her to find investors. Even with all her experience and visibility, her commitment to her community, she has struggled with this.

What is this about? Prior to this moment, why is that men have managed to attract investment despite their track records with settling out of court for sexual harassment claims, while women have so much struggle with this? And does being a woman of color play into this? Or the community that she serves?

Two things come to mind here for me.

One, the investors who bankroll the Mario Batalis of the world are not interested in the kind of business that Tanya is committed to. They want a ROI and they need to understand the attraction of the business. Dominique had had less trouble raising capital because she has a fine dining establishment. Rich folks get that. They want the kind of visibility that being an investor in her restaurants bring. Tanya’s food is for all of us, not just a group of people who can afford $400/person dinner. So it takes a certain kind of investor to see it’s value for themselves.

Two, I believe to raise capital for her businesses, and businesses like hers, it may require  restaurant owners like Tanya to think of different ponds to fish in. Just like Dominique Crenn can go to investors who can afford to eat at her restaurants, maybe we can create a pond of people who invest in restaurants like Tanya’s. Not for the profit they are looking to make, but the communities they are trying to build. Like a capital fund for community based businesses. Like a BIG capital fund.

Real estate developers, are you listening? Let’s dig a pond…



In 2017….

I haven’t found myself here for the past few months, but I have thought about writing nearly everyday. 2017 has come in with a BANG, and it has been almost impossible for me to tear myself away from the daily barrage of shocking news, from the Muslim travel ban to ICE raids to Supreme Court nominees. I feel like that guy in the video I saw on FB who wakes up every morning as normal, reaches for his phone and reads something that permanently fixes his face in a look of distress, not too different than the Edvard Munch screamer.

It has been hard to think of anything else, and yet for me, it has also been paralyzing. There are so many things I want to address, to take action on, but how to begin?

The night of the election, I was attending the Tuesday night session of the Communication Course at Landmark Worldwide. My friend was finishing the course and, as is the custom, she had invited me to come and see what I could find valuable. (As background I will say that I completed all the Landmark Curriculum for Living coursework in 2003, and have created my world from that work. So I’m in.) I remember walking home through the streets of downtown San Francisco to the BART station, passing bars with TVs on, and nearly breaking down as I saw our country slowly making a choice that I could not accept, that I could not fathom. I saw, in my mind, as I walked through the night, that all that we had accomplished as a nation in terms of enlightened leadership, was about to be a memory.

In the ensuing months, I kept hoping that this was just a bad dream. I think alot of people felt that way. That we would wake up one morning and the nightmare would be over. But January 20 happened. I still can’t put the words “President” and “Trump” together. It really feels, for someone who has any sense of history and the ideals this country is built on, like the Twilight Zone.

After that night in November, I began to ask myself, who are the people, the Americans, who voted for this man? What was so important to them that they could forego what is so essential to what makes us Americans in exchange for what this man was offering? Did these voters understand that obsessive fear has the effect of closing a society? And this man pandered at every move to the fear.

Out of this, my Pie Project was born. For now, that’s what I’m calling it. Other names I’ve come up with are “Language as Pie”…I like that one alot. Let me explain:

Years ago, a friend was road-tripping across the country from California to his home in Boston, and he sent me a picture of some fabulous pie he was eating in Memphis, confessing that he couldn’t eat just one piece, it was so fabulous. As a former pastry chef, and lover of pie, I thought at that moment, how fun it would be traveling from city to town around this country, eating different pie.  After all, I once saw Paris by traveling from chocolatier to chocolatier and trying chocolate.

So why not take this opportunity to travel now, eating pie and hearing stories. To hear what people are thinking, to hear their stories, to hear what we have in common, and not what we have that separates us.

The project was born, to plan a listening project around pie. Because pie is common language, interpreted differently, with stories and feelings surrounding it. It is friendly, a starting point for the conversation, a good place to come back to.

In an interview with the New York Times, Barak Obama spoke about the importance of books for telling stories and that his community organizing began with a desire to hear people’s stories: “The thing that brings people together to share the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issues, it’s that they have shared the same stories….If you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find out what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.”

This project is in the planning stages, but I intend to make my first trip this summer, or late summer. I’m going to be doing some practice meetings here in the Bay Area (shout out to Lakeisha, who suggested that!) and I will write about them, most likely on another site.

For now,  I will continue to write about things that inspire me! Up next, ROC United has created a program called  Sanctuary Restaurants and what we need to do in the restaurant industry to take action…