How I See San Francisco: La Cocina Executive Director Caleb Zigas
There is lots of opportunity for successful chefs in San Francisco, but one innovative mentor is making sure it stays a level playing field. Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, has helped develop restaurants for low-income entrepreneurs for more than 10 years. Showcased at the popular San Francisco Street Food Festival each year, many of La Cocina’s graduates have gone on to have their own acclaimed eateries. We caught up with Caleb and here’s what he had to say about the program, the San Francisco food scene and his favorite restaurants.
In a city with such a dynamic and competitive food scene, why is it important to have opportunities for low-income entrepreneurs to develop their restaurants?
The barriers for food businesses to enter the marketplace are significant and real, particularly for low-income entrepreneurs, women entrepreneurs, immigrant entrepreneurs, and folks of color. And we believe those entrepreneurs also happen to make some of the best and most exciting food in the Bay Area. By formalizing their businesses and creating opportunities, you’re maintaining what a real urban space should be—vibrant, inclusive and egalitarian.
What is the annual San Francisco Street Food Festival?
It is a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit of San Francisco—low, middle and high—featuring the vendors of La Cocina. We started as a block party and a way to show off our clients. It has since evolved into a 50,000 person annual event. For a city that really defines itself with its food culture, the Street Food Festival is one of the best single ways to learn about the city in a weekend and really taste what makes San Francisco. The next one will be the third weekend of August.
What inspires you about the San Francisco food scene?
It’s such an example of a working class industry—of people who work hard and are committed to giving something to everyone who comes into their spaces. The fact that it is so varied and talented is also really inspiring. There is nobody making mediocre food at these high levels in San Francisco.
What are your favorite places to eat in the city?
I love everywhere. You can’t go wrong eating at any one of the La Cocina businesses: El Huarache Loco, Sabores del Sur, Estrellita’s Snacks, AnDa Piroshki, Onigilly, La Luna Cupcakes and Zella’s Soulful Kitchen. For non-La Cocina businesses, I really love La Ciccia in Noe Valley and the Chinese food at Riverside Seafood Restaurant between 23rd and 24th Avenue. For a late night bite to eat, I like Nopa.
What is your favorite neighborhood?
I love the Mission. I live and work in it and for the last 15 years, it’s been really varied and diverse. I think it has an excellent food scene. It’s a place where real people live and work. It’s got political activism at its core. I think that’s what makes it.
If you have an out of town guest coming to visit, what’s the one thing you always take someone to do?
I walk them from my house in the Mission to the corridor on 24th street to see the stores and then up to Valencia and 18th to Bi-Rite Creamery, Pizzeria Delfina and Dolores Park. And then up into the Castro.
For more details on La Cocina and the San Francisco Street Food Festival, visit www.lacocinasf.org