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Cooking Their Way to New Opportunities

A nonprofit foundation gives immigrants training in food handling, catering and starting a business.

November 17, 2002|Janet Saidi | Special to The Times

EL CAJON, Calif. — A nonprofit foundation here is trying to encourage low-income women to join together to learn job skills and entrepreneurship, with some herbs and spices thrown in.

The International Women's Kitchen makes its new home in a renovated house off El Cajon's Main Street, pledging to help turn women immigrants from around the globe into self-sustaining businesspeople.

What began as an informal idea -- "Let's cook" -- has evolved into a comprehensive training program in catering, food handling and starting a business, all facilitated by a nonprofit organization, Downtown El Cajon Inc.

Two years ago, the organization was approached by local immigrant women who wanted to open a vending booth at the community's farmers market.

The initial idea was the women's, said Laura Jones, now manager of the International Women's Kitchen. The organization "just put it into pretty words [in a grant proposal] and got money."

The seed money came from the San Diego Foundation, a charitable organization that had researched 18 neighborhoods in San Diego County and found that this diverse city 15 minutes from downtown San Diego had a worrisome potential for tension among its immigrant communities.

The program now provides a full curriculum of courses taught by visiting professionals and translated into Spanish and Arabic through United Nations-style headsets. There are classes in basic nutrition and food presentation, as well as such general business classes as how to file taxes and micro-enterprising, which spells out the ABCs of starting your own business.

More important, the program will soon enable the International Women's Kitchen to move completely into its new home, where meetings have been held but the kitchen is not quite ready.

While preparing meals, women -- mainly from Mexico and the Middle East -- work alongside one another using hand gestures and smiles. Occasionally they try their English for important words such as "salt."

Women such as Maria Silva and Petra Acosta, both from Mexico, cook meals with Kaniah Zangana and Victoria Miran, Kurdish immigrants.

The women cater local business seminars, nonprofit gatherings and fund-raisers and operate booths at concerts.

They are learning to prepare one another's traditional dishes, and Silva even boasts that she has made the Arabic dessert baklava at home, to the delight of her husband, Eduardo.

The menu for any given event may feature Mexican food, with tamales and carne asada, or Arabic selections such as kabobs and saffron rice. A sample dessert buffet is an international cornucopia of treats from basbousa -- an Egyptian cake -- to flan, sweet tamales and coconut macaroons.

Manager Jones throws in her grandmother's recipe for fried chicken and collard greens to meet some clients' demands.

A professional chef and businesswoman who gave up a business career in New York City shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Jones said she's seen some of the women transformed by the program since she joined it.

They're learning English, Jones said, and gaining skills. Some are also getting greater help from their husbands with housework and child care.

"On a personal level," Jones said, "I see them becoming more competent, more outspoken. It's their personalities sort of blossoming."

On quiet Orange Street, just off El Cajon's industrious Main Street, sits a brightly lighted renovated house containing the program's kitchen, which has been certified by the county Health Department.

Donations, including a free roof, helped make the building possible. And now the kitchen is within days of opening, Jones said.

In the meantime, Jones takes the women and cooking supplies to various neighborhood kitchens before each job.

The women make many of the business decisions, from deciding on the menu to setting the prices. Jones provides the women with spreadsheets of their personal and business finances -- documents they can use for insurance or tax purposes.

On a recent Wednesday night, some of the women seemed uneasy with the program's goal of encouraging them to move on and start their own businesses. They know another group of women is waiting to enter the program.

Jones reassured them, saying they can stay in the program as long as they want to. Then she used a chalkboard to reiterate the program's parameters: The nonprofit pays 25% of the food costs, and 10% of profits go back into the Women's Kitchen. The net profit is divided among the women working the job.

So far the money they earn is minimal: $100 for each woman on a very good night of catering. But, whether working the booth at the farmers market or planning menus, the women display enthusiasm and ambition.

Acosta is grateful for even a little bit of her own money in her pocket. "I can go buy groceries and don't have to ask my husband for money," she explained through a translator. "If I want something for the kids, I can go buy it."

Jones predicted that some of the women will form their own businesses, and others will simply be bolstered by the chance to make alliances and strengthen the community.

Eventually, the kitchen manager predicted, the women will run the program themselves, and training might even be expanded and child care added.

"The women who are in it, they're all very intelligent, they're excited," Jones said, "because this is their business. They all have hopes and dreams of what they want to do, and we're hoping that soon we'll be able to call them graduates."

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