There's no doubting the power of the dinner table — the act of eating together has the ability to transcend differences and spark conversation. But while on research trips abroad to Myanmar and Kenya, Stanford d.school students Abby Sturges and Jennifer Lopez uncovered what they believed to be an even more important moment surrounding food — the time spent preparing and sharing meals with other women. "When we tried the food laid out before us in Myanmar and Kenya, the women we spoke to began trusting us and became generous of much more than just the food in their kitchen," says Lopez. When they got home, the duo launched Culture Kitchen, a new Bay Area-based culinary school where women share their family recipes and insight into their cultural backgrounds.
Culture Kitchen is firmly entrenched in the startup world.
"There is a great interest in food right now, but ethnic cuisines are particularly exciting to people because they are entry points into familiar and unfamiliar cultures," says Lopez. By exploring these access points in an intimate, hands-on setting, Sturges and Lopez think they can create valuable exchanges and interactions between different ethnic backgrounds. "In classes, we hear the conversation begin around ingredients or styles of cooking and progress into stories of growing up and the richness of cultures," says Lopez. "People are seeking out commonalities. When you find that how you cook is similar to someone else, and how you grew up is similar, even if it was on two very different continents, you create meaningful connections."
Cooking, the duo discovered, is a comfortable place for people to compare notes on very personal experiences without feeling invaded. Even something as simple as slicing vegetables can be a window into someone's background, says Lopez. "People say, 'Oh, that's how you cut carrots! I would have never thought to do it that way, I always do it like this,' and the next thing you know they are talking about personal memories of their own family's culture."
While this may sound like Food Network territory, Culture Kitchen is firmly entrenched in the startup world (the founders are calling their concept a "Khan Academy for ethnic cooking classes," referring to the hot online school where people teach and learn skills for free using videos and tutorials). Recently, the duo was asked to participate in a food-centric event for accelerator 500 Startups, where Silicon Valley's hunger for food issues was made evident by the sold-out, standing-room only crowd. "What was more interesting were the broad and distinct interests of the group spanning such areas as sustainability, technology, agriculture, open communities, and corporate culture — all of which directly related to food, but were very different takes on what the food startup world could be," says Sturges.
Upcoming classes focus on Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese classics, and the prices range between $40 to $60, which include the cost of ingredients. The teachers are all women who are not professionally trained chefs but have recipes to share, many passed down through generations. "Initially, we started by reaching out to organizations that work within immigrant communities and already have established and trusted relationships within those communities," says Lopez. "For example, we’ve partnered with The Women's Initiative San Jose office, who has been wonderful in supporting Culture Kitchen and connecting us with incredible women within their organization."
This fall, Culture Kitchen will launch an initiative around sourcing and using ethnic ingredients, and is in the process of building a platform that will tell the stories behind their chef-teachers. A series of recipes are already published on the site. Sturges and Lopez think they can use their skills as designers to improve the experience around cooking ethnic food at home — making it more fun, accessible, and meaningful to a wider audience, but also increasing people's respect for cultures that seem exotic and foreign.
"We wholeheartedly believe that with a greater understanding of other cultures and people, you earn a greater understanding of yourself," says Sturges. "Just last week, I was interviewing a woman from Afghanistan and I asked her what made her interested in teaching a Afghan cooking class with Culture Kitchen, aside from wanting people to understand Afghan food and culture. She said she wanted to learn more about American culture."
[Top image by Lucas Cobb]