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, and we want to give special attention to each of the Chefs and their journey to La Cocina Municipal Market in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more!
The first thing you notice about Chef Nafy Flatley is her beaming smile. Even over Zoom, it’s impossible not to notice how thrilled she is to see you, and you can’t help but reciprocate. Her infectious joy is everywhere, from shaking her fist laughingly at the construction above her (La Cocina Municipal Marketplace is preparing for their hard open), reminiscing about her Senegalese childhood with her mother, to her new entrepreneur venture.
Teranga, a Slice of Senegal
Chef Flatley, she’ll insist you call her Nafy, is the owner of Teranga, one of the newest kiosks at the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace. She taps into her Senegalese childhood to create organic meals and healthy juices made out of baobab fruit, a fruit that Chef Flatley says is deeply rooted in African culture.
“These trees, they’d live up to 5,000 years. Most of them are in sub-Saharan Africa down to Madagascar and in some parts of West Australia. They represent African culture; they represent African history. I mean, who doesn’t love the baobab tree? You see this tree, and you are just mesmerized. My attachment to the baobab came from not only being a kid and having it all the time, but also the representation it has in the African culture, in the African continent.”
But for Chef Flatley, this tree goes beyond tradition; it represents a mother’s love and a childhood overcoming illness.
“Baobab has been part of my life since forever. So I was born with sickle-cell. I have the traits. I have three older sisters. All three of the girls have sickle cell traits. My mom said, ‘ok, I’m going to look into this and understand what sickle cell is and what sickle cell traits are, how to treat it, and how to help support my three girls’. And so that’s how the baobab came to be part of my life, because of the sickle cell traits I was born with and my mom looking into different ways that she could support our bodies to stay healthy.”
Chef Nafy Flatley’s Redirection
Although Chef Flatley had always cooked for her friends and family, selling is relatively new. When she originally came to America, her idea of what the dream meant was substantially different.
“For me, watching 90210, Dallas...all of these shows influenced my American Dream. That’s what sold me to come here to this country.”
In her own words, the American Dream to a young Chef Flatley was “having fun,” running around, and living without a care in the world. After college, she spent time working in an office, even got married, and had three sons. But everything changed when the economy took a nosedive in 2008.
“I lost my job at that time. I experienced how vulnerable we are when it comes to financial security. One day, you can be working, going to your job, every day happy, a happy life. And the next morning, you wake up, all that disappears. And I’m like, ‘this volatility of the economy, of financial freedom, and all these things, I cannot keep living like that.’ The reason I came to this country was to live that American dream: to be happy, to make money, and then be able to support myself, my family, and then anybody else that, you know, asked me to help.”
Rather than dive back into the office, Chef Flatley decided to ask her mother, the original entrepreneur in the family, what to do and changed the entire course of her life.
“I started brainstorming and made some samples of some different dishes, and people bought it from me. I would make it a few times for birthday parties, and they would ask me to make dishes and juices-- especially the juices. And I started making some bucks here and there, and it felt really good. So that’s literally how the idea of starting Teranga came to be. It was very informal for a long time, but then I met with La Cocina; that is when I took it up a notch and formalized it to make it a real business.”
The Meaning of True Hospitality
In Senegalese, the word ‘teranga’ means ‘hospitality.’ But Chef Flatley explained that ‘teranga’ goes deeper than a definition.
“It’s the way we live our life; it’s the way we talk to people, it's an art, it's a way of life, it's how you treat your friends and treat people who come into your home. There is no such thing as too much hospitality or too much ‘teranga’ in Senegal. You can knock on someone's door in the middle of lunch and join in. So it's just something that has always been a part of who I am, part of my culture, part of my upbringing. I wanted to express this and bring it more towards the food I make, towards all of these dishes I make, and show it to people. Just this concept of hospitality, of friendship, of camaraderie that we are trying to spread the love of 'teranga', spread the love of hospitality in the foods that we make.”
Joining a Kitchen Incubator
The difference between wanting and doing is often a matter of finding the right people, and for Chef Flatley, that became a scavenger hunt. La Cocina was just a name to her at the time with no other guiding factor. But like most problems in life, this didn’t stop her from her mission.
“I remembered when I was in college; I heard that there was this organization called La Cocina that was helping women entrepreneurs. It just came into my head, and I said I needed to find the organization and see if they could help me. So I put my son in the car and started driving in the mission, looking for La Cocina. And all these different organizations, I knocked on all of those doors. And they said: 'I am sure the organization you are talking about exists, but we just don't know which one it is.’ But finally, when I went to this non-profit organization called Meta, they told me it was called La Cocina, and they helped me reach out to them. I was super lucky they were taking applications and having orientations at the time I was looking for it.”
La Cocina is a non-profit kitchen incubator that assists low-income women, people of color, and immigrants as they 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.
For Chef Flatley, it was the perfect place to begin her journey, helping her through the more overwhelming steps that often stop most would-be entrepreneurs in their tracks. Chef Flately recalls her time building her business with La Cocina fondly.
“It was just something that was meant to be. So I applied and wrote my business plan, submitted samples, went in for interviews. And since 2015, I have been part of La Cocina, and they've done a tremendous job in who Teranga is right now.”
The American Dream: Then & Now
As Chef Flatley and I spoke, one question continued to haunt me: What was her American Dream now?
As she began to say her goodbyes, I asked. The brightest grin bloomed on her face as she answered with confidence.
“For me, it's the marketplace. It’s really become my American dream. Being here and sharing it with six beautiful, talented women from different parts of the world. All of us sharing our food in one place. The first woman-led reusable market. And being here, together, we have one goal and one dream, which is to be financially independent, not only for ourselves but also for people who work for us, and also our suppliers and those who support us from the outside. And so this has become my American Dream, and this has become the way I would like my life to lead on and create generational income not only for myself but also my kids.”
As Chef Flatley works within her community to create a better world for herself and her family’s future, she offers one final piece of advice to any woman who wants to open a business and set out on their own.
“I can’t. It’s a word women should never use. Believe in yourself, and don’t be scared.”
You can find more about Teranga 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 Nafy Flatley on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter or order the La Cocina cookbook if you can’t dine at the San Francisco location.