This article is part of the La Cocina Series, where we sat down via Zoom with the amazing women who made history as the first woman-led food hall in America. Bbot is honored to help make this community food hall possible. We want to give special attention to each chef and their journey to La Cocina Municipal Market in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more!
Chef Dilsa Lugo had a busy morning, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for her. With business booming, she doesn’t have a lot of free time these days, but that doesn’t bother her. As we sit down to speak on Zoom, I watch her mind drift in and out from my questions and what the rest of her workday will be. That’s what true passion looks like - a haze that can’t be fully shaken off.
The owner of Los Cilantros knows all about that constant drive. Growing up on her family’s farm in Mexico, cooking was a celebration for every member of the household. After moving to California with her own growing family, Chef Lugo used her knowledge of small business and love of cooking to bring her beloved family dishes to the Bay Area, all made with local ingredients in tribute to her farm-to-table childhood.
"I’m so excited to bring something different to this neighborhood,” she says.
The success of farm-to-table restaurants
Chef Lugo was born into a love for farm-to-table; growing up on her family’s farm instilled a deep sense of respect for the land and those who nurtured it. When money was scarce, they always had fresh vegetables that her mother would blend into creative and delicious meals for Chef Lugo and her siblings.
“My father used to grow corn and beans and a lot of things. So when we had these ingredients and we didn't have a lot of money, my mom got really creative when she was cooking. During corn season we used all of the corn pieces, nothing went to waste, making esquities, anything with corn, and it was all fresh. Then when we dried the corn we had the tortillas for the whole year.”
This concept of low-waste and thoughtfulness when it came to food traveled with her to the United States, where she focused on building relationships with farmers and food suppliers in California. Los Cilantros prides itself on using fresh, local ingredients to produce dishes with the best flavors.
“I just wanted to have something like that,” she says. “Just have the most fresh ingredients and the most delicious dishes.”
Bringing childhood simplicity to the menu
Chef Lugo is the youngest of eight and grew up with the warmth and love she now brings to her kiosk at La Cocina Municipal Market. However, her time with her mother is her guiding star for how she maneuvers the world. Her mother imparted not only a love of cooking but the know-how for making a delicious meal from a short list of ingredients. Chef Lugo marries her family traditions with her mother’s flexibility in Los Cilantros.
“The thing I admire about my mom is that she is so careful with money. She used to cook very simple meals. Like one tomatillo salsa that has just 2 or 3 ingredients at most and it was delicious. And you can put it with this and that, and everything. And that's how we cook at Los Cilantros.”
Chef Lugo is still very close with her mother, and in fact, collaborates on menus with her since all her recipes “came from [my mother].” Chef Lugo has added and grown her range of food options throughout the years while learning new dishes, but every staple ties back to her maternal roots.
“There have been things I have learned through the years, and we have added them to the menu. But the main things are the salsas with the spiciness, the freshness; it's from her.”
Opening a catering business first
When Los Cilantros first opened, it wasn’t the big restaurant Chef Lugo had hoped it would be.
“We were really a small business,” Chef Lugo says. “I only had catering once and a while, I used to make tamales from my house.”
As time went by, Chef Lugo joined up with La Cocina, finding the support she needed to grow and carve out a piece of the restaurant industry for herself.
La Cocina is a non-profit kitchen incubator that assists low-income women, people of color, and immigrants to formalize their food businesses. The La Cocina Municipal Marketplace stands as an innovative model of conscious, community-led development, offering economic opportunity for women entrepreneurs, jobs for Tenderloin residents, and delicious and affordable food for community members and those looking to eat with purpose.
“And now we are here with a restaurant. It's been a really nice thing to see La Cocina and our community growing and they see us growing our business.”
The Mexican community in her neighborhood of Berkeley have welcomed her with open arms; even from the early days of Los Cilantros, customers would come back again and again for their nostalgic love of the hand-made, homey feeling her dishes provided.
“People really appreciate the work behind the handmade tortilla. Or they come and try the salad, the dressing, and salsa. In the first 3 years of the restaurant, when we were not very known, and we didn’t have a lot of customers, the few ones that came were saying ‘oh this is amazing, it reminds me of that one place in Mexico’ or compliments about the food. And you see that the work is worth it because they appreciate it.”
“We like each other a lot. We help each other. And I’ve found that La Cocina is like a family.”
After years of pushing through the restaurant business alone, the women of La Cocina Municipal Market, many of them fellow immigrants, found help and comfort in building a community all their own. Chef Lugo is constantly inspired by the group, and they share the sentiment.
“We came here by ourselves. And in 2003, it was just my husband and I, and it was so nice to meet this group of people to help us. They are all businesswomen, and we share the same jobs and the same dreams. It's really nice to be in the community.”
Building a good relationship with local food suppliers
Chef Lugo has pushed Los Cilantros to establish itself as an integral part of the local community, connected not only to the neighborhood but to those in the supply chain as well. “You have to be in touch with people,” says Chef Lugo.
This has always been an important part of the process to her; her memories of childhood on her family’s farm have driven her to reach out to farms in the surrounding California area. These partnerships add a special layer of care to her food, sourcing not only fresher ingredients, but working to keep farms like her father’s afloat and successful.
“I know the owner of the company that makes the cheese. We buy from a local cheese factory, and I met this lady when she used to sell at a different location. I talked to her, and I know her; I know who is making the cheese and that's really nice. I know the lady who makes our masa. It's nice because you understand the prices that they have, and how much they sell their products for and why. For me, it's nice to just meet them and have that connection.”
Paying it forward
Chef Lugo cannot emphasize enough how important it is to surround yourself with a good community, like that of La Cocina. Her drive to follow her dreams and open a restaurant extends beyond her own profits; it’s an opportunity to lift everyone around you. It’s an opportunity to improve your environment. She strives to make Los Cilantros a great place to work for herself, her employees, and her partners, so they can work together to create more than a business that provides: they create a full, self-sustaining community.
And that’s what La Cocina is all about - sustaining the communities and thriving traditions that make San Francisco a beacon for immigrants, do-ers, and dreamers. A restaurant isn’t just a place to eat - it’s an opportunity to grow generational wealth and invest in the future of an entire neighborhood.
“It's amazing for anyone that wants to open a restaurant. You have the opportunity to do what you want and what you like. It's also an opportunity to provide jobs for people. And you have the power to change the way you work, and the environment that you provide for people who work for you and with you.”
You can find more about Los Cilantros here at their website or by visiting their physical location at the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace. You can also follow the cooking exploits of Chef Dilsa Lugo on Instagram or Twitter or order the La Cocina cookbook if you can’t dine at the San Francisco location.