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Culture Kitchen Shares Ethnic Culinary Skills, from Stanford d.school to 500 Startups

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By Abby Sturges and Jennifer Lopez (Co-Founders, Culture Kitchen)

We, Abby and Jennifer, are the co-founders of Culture Kitchen, and this is our journey from Masters Thesis project to a startup spreading culture through food. We didn’t think at that time we would become cofounders of a food and culture company, but seven months later decided to work together on our Masters Thesis project which would soon become Culture Kitchen.

We met the first day of graduate school orientation. Jennifer had a background in geography and jewelry design and Abby in industrial design and consulting. Our goals were similar in coming back to school, further our design skills, be pushed harder than we had been before and use design to do more than just design another product to become landfill within a couple years.

At Stanford, we took a Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class.

For this class, Abby traveled to Kenya to design a new compost latrine for rural villages and Jennifer traveled to Myanmar to design a new approach to marketing treddle pumps to rural farmers. The experience to be on the ground in developing countries was invaluable to our growth as designers, entrepreneurs and as people. While working on latrines or tradeshow booths for treddle pumps was exciting and meaningful, we realized it wasn’t what we were passionate about.

It was talking to daughters, mothers, grandmothers and aunties in their homes about their lives and their culture that personally got us excited. In those conversations, we realized how much culture could be shared if we could give people the opportunity to meet and talk, but they needed a reason to be in the same room. The only time we experienced true connections with the women we were interviewing was when we tried their incredible food. Every home would open up their kitchens to us, and when we tried their stewed okra or roasted potatoes, we were able to break down barriers and get a better understanding of their cultures and the incredible women we were talking to.

A year later, with completed masters degrees and lots of changed directions, we are here with Culture Kitchen.

Culture Kitchen is a way for immigrant women in the US to share their incredible ethnic culinary skills with the world. We host in-person cooking classes and on our website provide cultural content and recipes. Our goal is to spread culture through food in a comforting way that feels like you just learned from a family member versus a white-aproned professional chef.

By removing the barriers to cooking, we allow anyone to be able to cook authentic ethnic cuisines at home. Our chefs are not professionally trained, but they truly are masters of their cuisines having cooked with their families for years.

We spent the fall of our thesis, validating this need in the marketplace.

Ethnic food is loved by many, foodies and non foodies alike, but without a baseline knowledge of how to make ethnic cuisines, it’s really hard to make at home. What is the recipe? How do I know this is a good recipe? How do I buy the ingredients? What makes this dish special?

During the winter, we ran prototype after prototype learning how to share the knowledge immigrant women have in cooking and culture to people who wanted this knowledge. We ran cooking classes, tested recipe videos, website mock ups, and eventually realized that in-person cooking class were really meaningful for both our students and chefs. We now offer private classes in addition to our public classes and are testing corporate events all in conjunction with a website that features our chefs, their food and culture. We are growing organically and learning trial by fire.

It is exciting, stressful, surprising and tests our limits every day. But, it is worth it when we see the photos of our events with all the laughing and excited faces, when we hear people say they feel like they had a Thai grandmother, and when we hear from our chefs that they finally feel more comfortable speaking aloud in English even if they have been in the US for 15 years.

We are currently a part of the accelerator program at 500 Startups and one of the first recipients of the Designers Fund.

We are currently raising a seed round of funding with the plans of growing our team to ultimately allow more people to experience the fun of making ethnic dishes at home and hearing the rich story behind the food.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest bloggers? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Abby Sturges is Co-Founder of Culture Kitchen. She holds a BFA in Industrial Design from Carnegie Mellon University and a MFA in Design from Stanford University.She has worked as a designer and project manager within the packaging, consumer products and outdoor furniture industries, with experience at large corporations, consultancies and a manufacturing companies. After years of frustration working on projects that do more harm to the world than good, she has cofounded Culture Kitchen to positively impact the lives of many.

About the guest blogger: Jennifer Lopez is a Co-Founder of Culture Kitchen. She has a background in jewelry design, metalsmithing and geography. She has taught Spanish to pre-schoolers, metalsmithing to college students, designed decorative accessories for Pottery Barn, and worked in marketing for non-profits. Jennifer uses design as a means to question both societal and business problems to create systemic change. She holds a B.S. from Dartmouth College and a MFA in Design from Stanford University.