How One Museum Launched A Teaching Kitchen To Bring Their Community Together
LA Plaza’s Education Department, then led by Ximena Martin, was subsequently tasked with developing a culinary offering that would appeal to the tastebuds of its visitors and to the hunger for knowledge on Mexican and Mexican-American gastronomy. In 2014, a series of pop-up experiences at various sites within the museum site was launched. These sessions took place in conference rooms, in LA Plaza’s courtyard, and in the garden area. The three program categories are:
Platicas y Pruebas
(Taste & Talk)
Hecho Con Amor
(Made with Love)
For all three programs, once the topic has been selected and the menu confirmed with the presenter, LA Cocina ensures the presenter has the inventory and ingredients to make the session successful. While these cooking classes, demonstrations, and tastings charge a fee for participation to cover expenses, they are significantly less expensive than other cooking classes and are the only offering at LA Plaza that costs money for participants. It was essential for the staff to keep fees low to remain accessible to as many people as possible.
In 2017, the Education Department launched another successful pop-up learning experience called LA Troka: Sembrando Cultura y Nutrición (LA Truck: Sowing Culture and Nutrition). LA Troka is converted food truck that travels throughout Los Angeles inspiring students and families to explore Mesoamerican ingredients and traditional foods. This program is free to the public and held in public parks, community centers, farmers markets and at community fairs. Each session includes an educational or storytelling component as well as a tasting. The Education Team uses food and other material that can travel at room temperature in their mobile education truck.
In 2019, LA Plaza had an exciting opportunity to work with the Country of Los Angeles, developer Trammel Crowe, and the César Chávez Foundation to expand its museum campus and build a teaching kitchen as a part of a new development in a mixed-use building across the street called LA Plaza Village. This partnership allowed La Plaza to expand on its culinary and cultural programming in new and exciting ways. The project was called LA
LA Plaza recruited an advisory board in the development phase that has remained a crucial support network for both program and operational work. The advisory board was made up of 20 invested stakeholders, including local chefs who could provide important practical advice on kitchen layout, inventory needs, and suppliers.When La Cocina opened its doors in February 2022, it became the first teaching kitchen in the country dedicated to Mexican and Mexican American gastronomy. And though the team at LA Plaza hadn’t had the professional space before, they had a vision for impact and a strong foundation from their connection to community needs and their experience with food programming via their network of contacts, chefs, restaurateurs, and food historians.
The space has three elements: a teaching kitchen, a gallery, and a boutique gift shop. All three support a shared vision: providing space to showcase different aspects of Mesoamerican culture and a platform for community members to share their stories and connect.
The programming is deeply reflective of and responsive to community needs and celebrates the talents of not only local culinary professionals, but of home cooks as well.
The core team running LA Cocina daily is small but mighty.
- Ximena Martin: Director of Programs and Culinary Arts
- Natalie Martinez: La Cocina Facility Coordinator
- Alexandra Alvarez: LA Cocina Store Manager
LA Cocina’s advisory board continues to support the programming by either teaching themselves or creating meaningful connections to other local chefs and restaurants.
The team that launched La Cocina has deep expertise in museum education and operations. Ximena herself is an accomplished cook. But the process of building and operating a working teaching kitchen is a very complex endeavor. In addition to being in a new building, the team had to learn about standard kitchen operations and inventory, the policies around hanging and maintaining art near a kitchen, and safety protocols.
This is where the advisory board has also played another significant role. This network of chefs that they had cultivated the project also helped identify low-cost supplies used by restaurants, as they reviewed and implemented safety policies to ensure community members could have a positive experience in the kitchen.
LA Plaza and LA Cocina are committed to supporting all vendors, chefs, and exhibit curators. Everyone is paid for their time. And for chefs leading the cooking classes, this also includes costs for an assistant chef and materials.
This illustrates a core value of the institution: a commitment to providing space that centers on and celebrates community members and places the community’s needs above the institution. LA Cocina has prioritized this commitment by dedicating nearly 75% of the budget to contractors. And while they charge for cooking classes, the cost is much less than similar experiences at cooking schools, culinary academies, and restaurants. Monthly cooking demos are free of charge, as are all other programs at LA Plaza, including admission to exhibitions.
While this wasn’t a challenge in the typical sense, it highlights the importance of making values-aligned strategic and budget decisions at the leadership level in collaboration with all levels of staff.
The team at LA Plaza had been cultivating meaningful relationships with local chefs and restaurateurs even before LA Cocina launched with the pop-ups held at LA Plaza’s main campus. They used basic outreach approaches like cold calling but also leveraged existing connections to create new relationships with culinary professionals. One creative approach they used to build their network was to host a “Sabor a” event on campus and invite local chefs to participate. This gave the team at LA Cocina a chance to meet various chefs, taste theor food, and build a relationship before they made their ‘pitch.’
Are there local networks of talent in your community you could activate to support programmatic initiatives? Try hosting an event – a tasting, speed networking, hands-on experience – that brings these individuals together authentically before asking.
As mentioned, the advisory board was key to the successful launch of LA Cocina. As they started to put together the initial group of talent they wanted to work with, local culinary professionals, university professors with a background in gastronomy and history, and community members were at the center.
Are you launching a new program or an ambitious initiative? Building an advisory board that reflects the community stakeholders is a great way to leverage existing knowledge and build buy-in. A few best practices for developing advisory boards include outlining clear roles and expectations; establishing intentional meeting frequency and structure (people are busy!); and building out communication templates/materials that advisory board members can easily share with individuals in their networks when it comes time to recruit volunteers, promote events, or even fundraise! For more inspiration, check out this Advisory Board Toolkit created by the Urban Institute.
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