What Will I Do When I Grow Up?
A mid-life question
In 2014, after almost two decades at a large corporation, I was laid off. While fulfilled for much of my time there, admittedly, I felt quite unhappy in that last year and had already been looking for other employment. When I went into my manager’s office I knew immediately by her tone what was about to happen. A sudden wave of anxiety and elation washed over me. Our conversation took only a few minutes. I immediately called my husband, an employee at the same company, to give him the news. He was livid and stunned. Disbelieving that they would let me go after so many years of loyal service. I, on the other hand, was excited. I wanted to grab my purse and skip out of the building and never look back. The following day, a Saturday, my husband and I cleaned out the contents of my office over burgers and beers. As I deleted all my emails he lingered on printouts of old projects and presentations repeatedly asking, “do you want to keep this?”. “Dump it.”, I would say, “It’s all in the past.”. With the exception of my personal effects I left it all behind in a recycling bin. A very cathartic day.
As I pondered my next career move so many ideas swirled in my head. My passions were clear to me, but how could I turn them into employment? What would support my family and also make me happy? I knew my deep love of food would be a prominent element of the next chapter in my career, but how?
What did I want to do when I grew up?
And so my journey began. I took cooking classes to hone my skills. I catered small events. I apprenticed and taught at a cooking school. I hosted cooking classes in my home. I befriended chefs, cooks and foodies. I started looking for jobs similar to my last one, but in the food industry. I dove head first into the deep end and didn’t come up for air. I was the happiest I’d been in quite some time.
One day a friend of mine mentioned a service called Josephine. He explained it was a platform where cooks could sell homemade meals to the public. Given my love of food and community he felt it was something I would like. I had not heard of it, but was curious. I looked it up one night on my phone and, having no real idea what it would become, applied to become a cook. A couple of weeks later I was contacted by the company to schedule a taste test and kitchen inspection. The day came and I felt excited and nervous. From the time I applied to then the opportunity grew in my mind. I didn’t want to work at or own a restaurant. My grandparents and father had all owned restaurants at some point and it ate them alive. But I did want to share my food with the world. I wanted to share my cultures. I wanted to engage with my community on a personal level.
My first meal was nerve racking, but successful. I made a Cuban Arroz con Pollo (chicken and rice), a favorite from my childhood. One of my grandmother’s signature dishes that I have made my own. But I felt anxious. I wanted my love of this dish and the excitement I felt whenever she made it to come through. Plus people - lots of people - had paid to eat it. I needed it to go well. I got 5 star reviews and I was hooked. Over the next year I cooked more and more often on Josephine up to several times a week. It was physically demanding as I, like many Josephine cooks, was doing it all myself. The planning, the photographing, the marketing, the shopping, the accounting, the preparing, the cooking, the serving, the cleaning. I’d collapse into bed on service days not able to see straight with exhaustion. But I was still hungry for more. I became addicted to this community. I loved seeing familiar and new faces alike come through my kitchen excited to be nourished. I loved talking to them about the food and what the meal meant to me. I loved hearing about their lives and getting to know them as people, not just a transactional customer. They knew my home, my food and my family.
It was personal and I couldn’t get enough.
In addition the Josephine team was working with legislators to expand the existing 2012 California Homemade Food Act via new legislation, AB 2593, to broaden food that can legally be sold out of one’s home. Collectively changing something that would impact all of California. More specifically, it would legitimize my business. The hours upon hours I had poured into this labor of love. Feeding people the dishes that were given to me with heart. And I put nothing less than my whole heart into everything I did to create it. The food industry, especially the restaurant industry, remains deeply male dominated and disparaging of women, immigrants and people of color. Institutionalized abuse that we as the eating public don’t see or choose to ignore. By contrast, Josephine cooks are primarily women and either 1st generation American, immigrants or people of color. Fledgling small business owners finding a little pocket where they can be creative and successful. Feeling like I was part of something greater than myself while doing what I loved was so deeply rewarding. So much so that I eventually became a full time employee at Josephine. Working to help cooks from the inside while remaining a cook myself.
Then I got a Cease & Desist for illegal food sales from my home. I had known this was possible, but walking up to my house and seeing that notice taped to my door was jarring. With bags of groceries for that night’s meal in hand, the bottom fell out. I called the Josephine team to tell them what happened then went into the office to regroup. We resolved to work tirelessly to speed up the passing of our legislation and resuscitate the community we built with care. But selling meals to my neighborhood from my home, for the time being, is on pause. And I really miss it.
I understand food policy is set up to protect consumers in a system where producers are consciously hidden from view. But, when I’m serving my neighbors they see everything. They see my kitchen and the care I take to keep it spotless. I tell them where I shop. I share which brands I buy. I tell them how I prepared the food. There is a level of personal accountability that the law is not set up to address. So I guess for supporting my family by running my own business, feeding my community too busy or tired to prepare a home cooked meal, fighting against the industrialized food machine by bringing back home cooking I am a criminal. But I ask you, am I?