by Tom Sims
What’s Cooking Fresno? is about building culture, community, cuisines, and dreams.
It was a two-day event that took place on Sunday, March 12 and Sunday, April 2 at Manchester Mall. It was an event, but much more than an event. It was part of a larger process.
Kelsey McVey, project manager for the program, which is part of the Better Blackstone Association, says “This could be part of a renaissance for Blackstone, to return it to a time when it was thriving and vibrant,”
According to its own literature, Better Blackstone is:
“An emerging association of diverse people and organizations who are committed to seeing new investment and revitalization of the Blackstone corridor. We want Blackstone to be a successful place for expanding and starting businesses, safe and clean neighborhoods, mixed-use developments, rapid transit systems, and convenient services, recreation, and entertainment that meet every day needs. Better Blackstone members are leaders from businesses, institutions, and neighborhoods that are gathering throughout 2015 to build a shared vision and strong partnerships in order to actively build a Better Blackstone together.”
The association was launched by Fresno Metro Ministry, and became one of 26 grant recipients funded by The Kresge Foundation FreshLo initiative to support their “Building the Better Blackstone CDC through Food Oriented Placemaking” project.
The food festivals grew out of a process and are feeding a larger process.
Better Blackstone took several months to conduct surveys and focus groups to gather information from residents, small business owners, and aspiring entrepreneurs about healthy eating, cultural food traditions, and the needs of food-based small business owners. The results were that people living and working along the Blackstone Avenue corridor include multicultural cooks and people with a taste for various flavors and traditions of cuisine. The project encourages aspiring chefs and food business owners to develop “healthy versions of traditional foods and fresh local, seasonal produce that can be used in everyday recipes.”
The desired result will be a healthier community and cuisine, dreams come true, and a celebration of the richness of the cultures that comprise the corridor.
Having completed the first part of the process, Better Blackstone is seeking space, place, and finances for an incubator to start small businesses including food businesses where dream chasers can get the support, training, coaching, and infrastructure to develop legitimate and creative contributions to the Blackstone food culture.Aspiring chefs were recruited and screened to compete in a friendly contest where everyone was a winner. They included dreamers who defined their culinary aspirations this way:
“My dream is to open a multicultural restaurant … and maybe eventually, open a catering business.” – Linda Easter
“I dream of opening a permanent restaurant some day and even establishing franchises producing jackfruit food products.” – Miriam Martinez
” … my wife and I own Mediterranean To Go.” – Elias Muhawi (who is living the dream)
“I would like to do … catering for fundraisers or community events … because it brings people together and I love to introduce people to different kinds of foods.” – Sarnsuphab Phabmixay
“I want to start my own mobile food business.” – Miriam Santana
“I dream of opening a restaurant … with traditional Lao food or a teriyaki place.” – Vilay Thephavong
“I just wanted to change careers and do something diggerent. So right there and there, I decided to start cooking more.” – Helen Hall
“I wanted to learn to cook to make people healthy.” – Harmit Kaur
When asked what inspired her, she said, “My mom … that was one thing I had to wake up to do … learn to help her cook.” – Jae Kittiphane
The food was not only multi-cultural. It was healthy!
What’s Cooking Fresno: Bites on Blackstone pulled together the best local talent available. It was a busy event with vendors, performers, activities, and of course, food-tasting. According to all who attended for a mere $5, the highlight was delicious food!
According to Fresyes reporter, Jenna Ardaiz Brown, in a recent review, “Delicious food aromas wafted through the air, giant flowers hung from the upper level, and people meandered from booth to booth happily tasting and talking as they completed the difficult but important task of establishing which booth and which country had brought the tastiest soup to the table.”
The Better Blackstone Association is made up of leaders from businesses, institutions, and neighborhoods along the corridor. Its mission is to make Blackstone Avenue “a successful place for expanding and starting businesses, safe and clean neighborhoods, mixed-use developments, rapid transit systems, and convenient services, recreation, and entertainment that meet everyday needs.”
According to Fresno Metro Ministries’ CEO, Keith Bergthold, “A better Blackstone means a better Fresno.” The key players in the process, Bergthold, McVey, and Ivan Paz have a dream just like the chefs. They want to see Blackstone become a hub for food entrepreneurs. The Kresge Foundation’s FreshLo program funded the first part. It is up to the community and future grantors to fund the next. The festival “gave our home cooks the opportunity to showcase their culinary talents and heritage,” according to Kelsey McVey. “Most of our home cooks have aspirations for opening a food-based business, restaurant or catering company, and this gave them a taste of what that is like.”
Among these was Celeste Harrell, the winner of the March Multicultural Soup Celebration competition. She rose to the top with her heralded Southern Chili. Harrell said, “Soul food is the basis of the foods I prepare.” She enjoys exploring other cultural cuisines as well. She has even spent some time as a vegetarian. She encourages younger and inexperienced cooks with the reminder that cooking is not hard. She uses recipes as a foundation and builds upon them creatively. She says, “Recipes are my canvass.” Harrell aspires to own both a fine dining restaurant and a food truck as well as a diner-style restaurant “where people can come in and get down-home food made from scratch.”
Other dishes in March included Helen Hall’s Vegetable Soup, Harmit Kaur;s Indian Vegetable and Lentil soup, Jae Kittiphane’s Daikon Soup, Miriam Martinez’s Jackfruit Soup, Vilay Thephavong’s Lao Chicken Noodle Soup, and Olga Lucia Viva’s Sancocho Vallecaucano.
The April winner was Maribel Sanchez. She got the prize for Chili Rellenos. She was first inspired to cook while watching her mother prepare a big pot of food to feed her large farm-worker family every day. As a child, she loved carnitas, rice, and beans. Her goal is to use her food business to “help get kids off the streets.” She says, “I’d love to open a business that provides a place for them to hang out with activities and offer discounted meals.”
April’s feast also included Stuffed Meat Rolls, Stuffed Cupcakes, Jackfruit Tacos, Grapes Leaves, Mieng Muang Luang (Lettuce Wraps), Pupusas, and Sakoo Saimoo (Tapioca Dumplings) .
Both events included cultural dance and music, cooking demonstrations, cultural arts vendors, and a chance to mingle.
It was about culture, celebrating the diversity of wealth of the cultures thriving along Fresno’s busy, central corridor, The Spine of our City. It was about community, gathering together representatives of those cultures to share a taste of possibility. It was about cuisine because food always invites us to a common table of conversation, understanding, and friendship. It was about dreams because the dream is big enough to transform a neglected corridor into a thriving lifeline where the dreams of our neighbors can be nurtured and come true.
In the meantime, please pass another bowl of whatever that is in your hand.