Customer Stories

The La Cocina Series: Chef Wafa Bouhlil of KAYMA

Sara Detrik
Marketing Manager

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 Wafa Bahloul, half of the power couple that runs the Algerian business KAYMA, is the kind of woman that thinks before she speaks. Being heard and being understood are deeply important to her.  Chewing her thoughts over as she looks out the car window, her husband, Chef Mounir Bahloul, drives back to their family home from the La Cocina Municipal Market.

English is her second language, but her mastery has given her the ability to impart feelings and ideas perfectly. That quiet intensity marks her day-to-day, from raising her children to running a business. After a moment of contemplation, she nods, satisfied that she’s ready to begin.

But her intensity isn’t to be mistaken for coldness. When I asked how she feels about opening the first Algerian kiosk at La Cocina Municipal Market, she answered with a joyous smile.

“I am proud, really proud. Proud of myself, proud of my husband, and where we are now. It means a lot to us; it’s a big step. We are working hard to teach Americans and share Algerian cuisine-- that is our goal.”

KAYMA, a Family Dynasty

KAYMA is more than an Algerian gem in the La Cocina crown; it’s a way of life. ‘Kayma’ is the Algerian word for ‘nomad,’ often referring to the tents used by the Amazigh population in North Africa. Chef Wafa Bahloul’s own family is part of the Chaoui in northeast Algeria, and she continues to carry the family tradition into their new American life.

“It’s a family business. We have to keep up and keep going. Whatever happens, we have to keep going. It's our mission and our goal to grow.”

KAYMA isn’t just one kiosk; it also keeps its nomadic roots in its first food truck venture. However, moving into a stationary kiosk has not hampered their brand — it only emphasized Chef Wafa Bahloul’s care and goal.

“Before we started our kiosk, our goal was just the food truck. We would say that a food truck is like Kayma. It can go everywhere and share Algerian cuisine and our love. The kiosk showed up as Kayma Kiosk. It's there to share food and love. There is always a story around the food and the dishes.”

Chefs Wafa & Mounir, The Dynamic Duo

Chefs Wafa and Mounir Bahloul met in Algeria and married, although their combined love for traditional cooking didn’t begin until both arrived in America. Chef Mounir Bahloul had reached out to his mother, asking about family recipes and diving deeper into the culinary world. However, Chef Wafa started her cooking journey as a child alongside her mother.

“My mom was a culinary teacher, and I was in her class. My mom is my role model. I can say that each time I work with flour, I remember her. She always said she couldn’t leave without playing with flour. Even if she has a little bit of time, she’s in the kitchen; she has to be doing something, making sweets or bread. She's unbelievable, and she is really a strong woman, and I see myself now as just a little bit like her. Here we are, just me, my husband, my two daughters; you have to be strong and work hard.”

In the kitchen now, the two can dip into their collective family tradition to represent the delicious offerings of their childhood tables. Although their recipes are similar, Chef Wafa says that only makes their teamwork stronger and pushes them to grow to compliment each other.

“I enjoy learning and working together. I’ve gotten used to it, like every morning we have our routine. He's a character, and I love going to work in the morning with him; I enjoy it. We are so busy, especially with a six and two-year-old. It’s life, and we are happy.”

The Birth of KAYMA

Before KAYMA was a thought in the Bahlouls’ minds, the nomadic spirit was still rooted in their hearts. Rather than stay in Algeria, the two decided to move to San Francisco, with Chef Mounir arriving first. Chef Wafa followed soon after, and their collective dream began. With recipes from home in their pockets, they were ready to start on the path towards their goal. But the two faced a vital issue: where to start?

“When we came here, everything changed for us; nothing’s the same. It's not easy to start a business, especially a food business. After working in the kitchens here and there and meeting people, I heard about La Cocina. I remember I went home and researched it on Google. I just started from there and met with them. It has been a long time since then, and now we’re in.”

As they moved from food truck to brick and mortar, the two continued to raise their children and go to work each day with one another. KAYMA might have made a pit stop at La Cocina Municipal Market. However, Chef Wafa feels they’re not so far from their nomadic days.

“Kayma Kiosk is a tent, but it’s not traveling. But maybe in the future, there will be Kayma here and there.”

Getting Help for Their Business

As businesses have closed down during the pandemic, many newer restaurants and foodservice operators have found themselves in desperate need of help. In 2018, help arrived early for the husband and wife team in the form of one nonprofit entity: La Cocina.

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 for Chef Wafa, they were and continue to be the most prominent supporters in her quest to spread Algerian cuisine throughout the Bay Area.

“I really appreciate what they do. To be honest with you, they have opened the golden door for us. They are unbelievable — I don't have words. It's hard to explain how I feel. It's a really big thing. We are all immigrants; it’s really amazing. They’ve given us the big key. My husband and I couldn't have done it without them. It's time and money, especially in the middle of the pandemic. I really appreciate the work they've done, from all my heart.”

For someone like Chef Wafa, who takes such delight in forming her answers first, this off-the-cuff response revealed the emotion behind the sentiment. To lack the words, Chef Wafa, is to be struck speechless in a way shared by each of the women who run the Municipal Market. This shared grateful regard creates an energy that’s palpable when you see the space, an energy and push unlike any other.

Once Through the Golden Door

The car ride is ending for Chef Wafa; however, she lingers in the car, smiling at her home with a thoughtful and distant look in her eyes. There’s something more she wants to say, so I don’t say goodbye just yet. I wait. Beyond the car door, I can hear the muffled sound of children in the last weeks of summer vacation. She takes a breath and begins to speak, never taking her eyes from the scene in front of her: her family, her children—everything she and her husband have built with their own two hands.

“It’s really special for me to be a husband and wife. It's hard. It's not easy, it's good, and it's not easy. You have to be patient, especially in the kitchen. We get stressed, and you can't take it personally. We both go back to the same home, so you can't take it personally. We both understand that we aren't giving each other orders. You have to be patient.”

Chef Wafa has done what so many couples have attempted yet never finalized. I asked her what advice she would give to other young couples looking to begin a business and life together.

“Whatever happens, you need to think of the business and what is best for the business. We want to succeed. There is no room for sensitivity. You have to be patient and communicate. Communication is really good, like how my husband and I do things. In a business, you need to communicate the plan. Patience and communication that's two points. And don't take things personally. We have to think about the business ahead of everything.”

You can find more about KAYMA here at their website or by visiting their physical location at the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace. You can also follow the cooking exploits of Chefs Wafa and Mounir Bahloul on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter or order the La Cocina cookbook if you can’t dine at the San Francisco location.