La Cocina executive director Caleb Zigas, shown here at Besharam, earned a James Beard Award for his leadership. (Photo/Courtesy La Cocina)
La Cocina executive director Caleb Zigas, shown here at Besharam, earned a James Beard Award for his leadership. (Photo/Courtesy La Cocina)

Director of food incubator for women of color to nurture his baby a little longer

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

2020 was supposed to be Caleb Zigas’ last year as executive director of La Cocina, the San Francisco-based food incubator that helps immigrants and women of color launch food businesses. But his plans, like so many others, changed due to the pandemic, and he’s agreed to stay on into this year to do whatever he can to help these small businesses stay afloat.

“The pandemic has been legitimately earth shattering, because our entrepreneurs and their families are incredibly vulnerable to the virus,” said Zigas, who stepped into the role exactly 10 years ago, and has been involved with the organization since it opened.

“Both because of the nature of the work they do, and because their livelihood has been decimated because of the way the economy has shifted.”

Zigas, 40, was recognized by the James Beard Foundation last year with a leadership award for his efforts in shepherding La Cocina and its entrepreneurs.

La Cocina — “the kitchen” in Spanish — opened its doors in 2005 with two employees and a $400,000 budget. Now it has 17 full-time employees and a budget of $5 million. Through the incubator, entrepreneurs receive mentorship in how to run a business, as well as access to a low-rent kitchen where they can make their food.

Sixty-five food businesses have been launched, with 36 of them turning into brick-and-mortar restaurants. Many have gone on to make the San Francisco Chronicle’s best-restaurant lists, as well as national lists in Bon Appétit magazine and others.

Last year six of the businesses that came out of the incubator were set to open a food hall in the Tenderloin, making history as the country’s first such enterprise composed entirely of women-led food operations. The permitting process is complete, but the public opening will have to wait until after the pandemic.

In one of its many pivots during the pandemic, La Cocina has been selling monthly themed food boxes, filled with a variety of products made by the organization’s entrepreneurs. A first-ever Hanukkah box featured items such as a Mexican-style kugel and purple yam (ube) doughnuts.

Zigas grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family that expressed its Judaism largely through involvement in social justice issues. One of his grandfathers was the first in his family line who decided not to become a rabbi, he said, and came to America from England.

Zigas described him as “very Jewish, and a labor organizer who drank highball whiskey,” saying “he was a really wonderful moderator of the Passover seder, where he really expected the kids to be leading voices at the table.”

He also had a grandmother who was known for her brisket — she even made it one time with her grandson for a 2009 video, in which she explained that the recipe wasn’t fancy because at the time she was raising her family, she was busy making flyers for the anti-Vietnam War effort.

The pandemic has been legitimately earth shattering, because our entrepreneurs and their families are incredibly vulnerable to the virus.

Zigas’ interest in the food industry began as so many others do, when he worked in restaurants as a teenager to earn spending money. He spent time in professional kitchens for several years, eventually realizing that he was better-suited to the front of the house than the kitchen.

In 2003, when he moved to San Francisco as a 23-year-old after attending the University of Michigan, he couldn’t find a job that was particularly meaningful to him; even jobs in the restaurant industry were hard to come by. Out for dinner one night in the Marina District with his aunt, in what Zigas called “the most Jewish moment ever,” she called over the manager and, with a certain tone, suggested the restaurant should hire him. Amazingly, it did.

Until he was hired for a staff position at La Cocina, Zigas worked in a number of San Francisco restaurants and did some gig work for special events at the Getty residence, sometimes serving as a butler. “I was an upstairs person, meaning you hand-polish the crystal and carry canapes,” he said. “I was there when Obama made the comment about guns and religion,” during a 2008 event where the then-senator characterized working-class voters in a certain way that got him in hot water.

All the while, Zigas wanted to get back to the social justice work that had informed his early years. When he heard about La Cocina, he applied for a job there, thinking his fluent Spanish would be useful and the mission would align with his personal goals. But instead, he was offered the opportunity to volunteer. His first position was showing up at 6 a.m. to open the kitchen doors.

He’s been there in some capacity ever since.

La Cocina came out with a cookbook in 2019, “We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Search of the American Dream.” The organization is considered a model and is often looked to by other communities wanting to do something similar.

“I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve worked hard,” said Zigas. “I generally think La Cocina shouldn’t be necessary to demonstrate the capacity of the entrepreneurs. We don’t teach or help, but we translate, so people can overcome these artificial barriers in the marketplace.”

As for what’s next for him, he isn’t sure, but is confident it will be something related to social justice.

“I don’t do La Cocina for the food element, I do it for the economic and racial justice components,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been interested in the whole time. In my next job, I would like to work for someone else. I’m tired of being a boss.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."