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Regional Interests

Oakland Pop-Up Shines Spotlight on Immigrant and Refugee Chefs in Training

Wanda Kruda had been selling plantains and rice from her driveway for about a year when she decided that it was time to take her Oakland-based vegan Cuban food business, Prima’s Corner (aka Rincón de la Prima), to the next level.

Kruda had been cooking almost all her life, including a stint at Reem’s, the popular Arab bakery, in 2016. Her driveway pop-ups were ambitious affairs, often featuring live cumbia or hip-hop and even vegan cooking classes for kids. But she’d reached the limit of how far she could carry the business on her own. 

Wanda Kruda preps vegetables in preparation for an Oakland Bloom pop-up. (Oakland Bloom)

“I tried to do it myself, but it’s a little hard,” Kruda says. “I need to build my relationship with the kitchen.”

So, Kruda enrolled in the kitchen incubator program run by the nonprofit Oakland Bloom, where she’ll spend the next several months learning about “finances, marketing, cash flow—everything” while also building up her repertoire of recipes. She’ll be one of two Oakland Bloom chefs featured at a pop-up at Understory, the incubator program’s partner restaurant, on Wednesday, Sept. 15, serving up a feast of cumin-dusted fried cauliflower “wings,” sweet plantains and lasagna-like Cuban pastelón. 

The pop-up is part of a new beginning for Oakland Bloom, which has taken various forms since the immigrant- and refugee-focused kitchen incubator was founded in 2015, most prominently as a series of night market–style pop-ups in 2017. The program was always limited by the fact that it never had a commercial kitchen space of its own, but when the pandemic derailed the restaurant originally slated to open at 1721 Broadway in downtown Oakland, one of its majority investors offered to turn the space over to Oakland Bloom. 

The result has been a dream project of sorts for social justice–minded food lovers: There’s Understory, which opened in the space as a worker-led restaurant, with a menu that rotates between the cuisines of its four founding “worker-leaders”—Filipino, Mexican, Moroccan. Meanwhile, as board member Diana Wu explains, Oakland Bloom now had a permanent home for its Open Space Test Kitchen incubator program, whose participants would have consistent access to the kitchen and could host pop-ups at the restaurant several times a month.

Jenabi Pareja, one of Understory’s worker-leaders, says the incubator program takes roughly nine months to complete, as Oakland Bloom and Understory staff walk the trainees through every aspect of running a food business—recipe development, business plan formation, marketing, logo design and so on. Pop-ups like the one this Wednesday—and every Wednesday and Sunday for at least the next couple of weeks—provide hands-on experience for the chefs to see “the full fledge of what it’s like to run a restaurant,” Pareja says.

The incubator’s first Understory-era graduating class, which included Hong Kong, Bosnian and Burmese chefs, completed the program earlier this summer, clearing the way for a new cohort of trainees, which includes the two chefs featured in Wednesday’s pop-up: Kruda (the vegan Cuban chef) and Nikki Garcia, who runs a Palestinian-Cuban fusion food business called Asúkar.

Garcia says she started out just serving her food to co-workers at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, fusing together flavors and ingredients from from her own Palestinian background and her husband’s Cuban heritage. The response was so enthusiastic that she decided to turn it into a business. She initially reached out to Oakland Bloom just to inquire about kitchen space; when they contacted her earlier this summer, it was to offer her a spot in the incubator program.

For Garcia, the hands-on training that Oakland Bloom has provided has been a game-changer. “I never worked in a kitchen or sold food in this quantity,” she says. “There were just a lot of things I wasn’t aware of.” 

Asúkar’s harissa chicken wings. (Asúkar)

For Wednesday’s pop-up, Garcia will be selling several of Asúkar’s greatest Halal-friendly hits, including her harissa chicken wings, falafel salad and Palestinian samboosas filled with Cuban-style beef picadillio. Those offerings join Prima’s Corner’s, which in addition to appetizers like the plantains and the cauliflower wings will also include a full dinner plate featuring a dish that Kruda calls “moros y no cristianos”—her take on the classic black-bean-and-rice dish moros y cristianos, but made with brown rice instead of white.

One benefit of the regular pop-ups is that they give the chefs a chance to get immediate feedback on any recipe tweaks. At her first pop-up, Kruda says, customers went wild for her pastélon, in which strips of plantain are layered with vegan cheese and plant-based meat. But each time she makes it, it gets better and better. 

Ultimately, Oakland Bloom’s goal is to help chefs build sustainable businesses for themselves. In fact, Pareja says, one option is for chefs who graduate from the incubator program to have a pathway toward an ownership stake in Understory if they’re interested. At the moment the restaurant is still working out those details and formalizing the business’s status as a cooperative.

Kruda, for her part, has dreams of starting a Prima’s Corner vegan Cuban food truck. But she says she would also love to have some role at Understory after she completes the training, perhaps as a mentor to a future group of aspiring chefs. 

“It’s awesome to have this kind of program for immigrants, for people who have an idea about their business but don’t know how to start,” Kruda says. “I think I can help other people like me.”

The Oakland Bloom and Understory collaborative pop-up will take place at Understory (1721 Broadway, Oakland) on Wednesday, Sept. 15, from 4–9pm. Customers can pre-order online or walk up to order at the restaurant. Follow Oakland Bloom on Instagram for updates on future pop-ups.

Copyright 2021 KQED