Stanford graduates Jennifer Lopez and Abby Sturges have traveled to different countries as part of their studies. And one of the things they noticed is the role a kitchen plays in each society. That idea has served as the basis and foundation of a new business: Culture Kitchen.

“The women we met in these different countries really showed us the connection you can have over the food you’re eating or preparing,” said Sturges. “It is really the idea of spreading culture through food.”

So when they got back to the U.S., what started out as a school project turned into something much more. Lopez and Sturges wanted to connect people in the States with these different cultures and foods they had experienced themselves.

The idea for Culture Kitchen was an ambitious one.  Aiming to educate people about different cultures through recipes and food preparation, they sought out home-taught cooks who immigrated from other countries. The idea was to have those women teach small classes in the Bay Area, bringing to life family recipes and also a part of their culture to their students.

“These women don’t have formal training as a cook. They just had their family recipes that were passed down from generation to generation,” said Sturges. “But those recipes and these home cooks had a story to tell behind the dishes they were preparing. They were sharing their recipe and heritage.”

So initially, Lopez and Sturges worked with organizations embedded in different immigrant communities in the Bay Area, trying to find qualified “master cooks.” That led to friends referring people to them as possible candidates.  Included in that group was Paloma, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, who has a full-time job working with children with special needs at the Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto.

I was fortunate to attend one of Paloma’s recent classes in which she shared her grandmother’s time-honored mole poblano recipe. The classes are small (ours had nine people including myself) but it truly is a hands-on experience. Participants can get deeply involved or help here and there. Paloma bought all the ingredients from a local grocery store and after a brief introduction, it was like any other cooking class. The students were peeling dried chiles, shredding chicken into thin strips, grinding spices, cutting onions and tomatoes, all while Paloma explained the recipe, step-by-step. Mole is not the easiest dish to make, but it was pretty amazing that after a few hours, all the work paid off in a wonderfully authentic dish, which we were all able to enjoy at the dinner table.

While eating, it was interesting to hear some of the back stories behind Paloma’s cooking experiences, especially involving her grandmother. “I feel like she’s always watching over me in my life. She was very particular about not sharing her recipes with others. They were almost like a family secret,” she said. “But once I started with Culture Kitchen, I could sense that even though she is not still with us, she really wanted me to share these recipes with everyone and to tell her story.”

Paloma was recommended to the group by a friend and was a bit hesitant in the beginning. “I was really nervous for my first class. I was sharing my chile relleno recipe. I had never done anything like this before. Plus, the kitchens we use are a lot different from the one I have at home. But I got through the first class and they have become a lot easier ever since.”

Paloma has taught five classes so far and said she really enjoys the experiences. “I have to come up with different recipes and ideas and then they have to be approved by the Culture Kitchen staff,” she said. “We test the recipe in their kitchen to see how it will work.”

Because of the small class sizes and confinement to the Bay Area (about two classes are held each month, one on the Peninsula and one in San Francisco), Sturges and Lopez wanted to create a way for these experiences to be shared with not only others in the Bay Area, but around the rest of the country as well.

“There are a lot of cities in other parts of the country where there might not be the necessary ingredients to make a truly ethnic dish. We are really fortunate here in the Bay Area to have so many ethnic markets where you can grab those special ingredients you might not find in regular grocery stores,” said Sturges. “So we came up with the idea for a Culture Kitchen box.”

Essentially, the box is a step-by-step guide to what one might learn if they sign up for one of Culture Kitchen’s cooking classes. Many of the ingredients are those that might be found on the shelves of local ethnic grocery stores. They are shipped to 32 states and bring the Culture Kitchen class experience to people across the country.

“This is a great way to show off recipes that have been passed from generation to generation,” Paloma said. Although she loves her job, she said it would be a dream to one day open up her own restaurant. But for now, Paloma said she’s happy cooking for her friends and co-workers and teaching classes with the Culture Kitchen team.