La Cocina Helps Launch Los Cilantros Catering Company

by Sarah Henry on November 19, 2010 · 29 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses

The story of how Dilsa Lugo launched Berkeley-based catering company Los Cilantros begins in Cuernavaca in the Mexican state of Morelos where she grew up.

Her family had a vegetable garden outside of town, where her father grew corn, beans, chilies, lemons, mangoes and more.

Her mother, who had nine kids to feed, cooked fresh tortillas on an open fire every day.

Lugo’s family farmed and cooked together out of economic necessity and enjoyed the flavors of a homegrown harvest and the pleasures of the table.

As a child, she liked to help in the garden and the kitchen.

In college, where she studied horticulture, she became schooled in the dangers of pesticides to farm workers, consumers, and the environment.

Before leaving Mexico seven years ago, she ran a successful greenhouse business selling plants, including poinsettias and marigolds, for festive occasions.

She landed in Berkeley with her husband, embraced the organic food movement, and lamented the lack of authentic Mexican eateries that offered organic food. So she began to make her own.

Her tamales, tacos, and tortillas proved a big hit with her husband’s co-workers in construction.

Maybe, she thought, she could start a food business here. But first Lugo attended the Berkeley Adult School, where she took English classes. There she learned about a program for aspiring cooks looking to land employment in the food industry called The Bread Project.

While participating in that program, she heard about and subsequently received support from La Cocina, a nonprofit commercial kitchen and food business incubator in San Francisco that helps low-income female food entrepreneurs formalize and grow their own businesses.

Lugo toyed with the idea of starting a Mexican bakery but opted, instead, to run her own catering company which she dubbed Los Cilantros, in honor of the pungent herb that flavors much of Mexican cuisine.

The 36-year-old lives in West Berkeley with her family, including a school-age son and a brand-new baby. We spoke at her home a couple of weeks ago.

Sopes by Los Cilantros Catering Company.

Can you describe your cooking style?

Very traditional, very simple, using the best ingredients I can find.  I make tacos with Niman Ranch meat, fresh, from scratch salsa, and homemade tortillas.

Also sopes, small, thick, tortillas with toppings like refried beans, chicken, or mushrooms. Our roasted elote or corn on the cob is a very popular street food. We coat it with a little mayonnaise and add queso cotija (a hard and salty cheese) and chili powder.

What was The Bread Project like?

It was an excellent training program: Every day from 8 until 4:30, five days a week for two months, I learned how to bake breads, cookies, cakes, you name it. To this day the staff there have been helpful to me in my business.

How has La Cocina helped you grow your business?

I’ve learned a lot about cooking, of course, like how to adapt recipes to make big quantities, and working on a larger scale. The culinary director Jason Rose introduced me to new ingredients. We had a class, for instance, on cooking with different salts.

But I’ve also learned a tremendous amount from the director, Caleb Zigas, and others about the business end. They really stress having a solid business plan at La Cocina and doing your research. They want you to succeed. And I’ve gotten referrals for work, including my first big party, a wedding, through the program.

Lugo made 1,300 tamales for the Eat Real Festival this year. They were all eaten.

Where do you sell your food?

We cater private parties, festivals, and events. We’ve cooked at the San Francisco Street Food Festival and the Eat Real Festival in Oakland. In Berkeley we’ve worked the Solano Stroll and the 4th of July Festival at the Marina. We also recently catered the PTA meeting at King Middle School, where we served tacos, tamales, corn, and aqua fresca. It seemed to go over well.

Have you had any high-profile clients?

I’ve cooked for Isabel Allende in her home in Marin. It was an honor. I’ve read all her books, she’s an incredible storyteller. She is also a lovely person — and she’s a good cook herself. I catered three dinner parties for her last year and thank goodness she really liked the food.

Do you have any tips for people who want to make Mexican food at home?

Buy the fresh masa from Primavera at the Saturday farmers’ market in Berkeley. It’s very good. But it sells out, so go early. And when corn is in season we get it from Catalan Family Farm. Maria Catalan is so impressive, she’s the first Latina woman to own her own farm in the U.S. Her father, who returned to Mexico, is from exactly where I come from. We also get our chilies, nopales, (cactus) and, of course, cilantro from her.

What’s next?

I’d like to bring authentic Mexican cuisine into the schools and teach kids how to cook using organic ingredients in places like the Mission District of San Francisco, Oakland, and at Cragmont Elementary, my son’s school. I’d like to have a taco truck and sell my organic food on the go.

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

You might also like:

Berkeley Bites: Ambrocio Hernandez, Mi Tierra Foods

Street Food Scene Mostly Bypasses Berkeley

Shakirah Simley: Preserving Food, Seeking Justice

A Shout Out for the Eat Real Festival

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food


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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

NoPotCooking November 19, 2010 at 8:56 am

You meet, and interview, the most interesting people! I love the name of her company.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Salmon with Mustard Sauce

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Sarah Henry November 19, 2010 at 1:52 pm

It sounds fresh and flavorful, doesn’t it?

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Jane Boursaw November 19, 2010 at 10:34 am

Love stories like this! And love hearing about programs like this that are so helpful, not only for the person who directly benefits, but also their customers, friends and family.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..New in Theaters- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- The Next Three Days

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Sarah Henry November 19, 2010 at 1:54 pm

I know what you mean. I am just back from an interview in Oakland, where another incubator program is getting healthy groceries into an underserved community in creative ways. Stay tuned for that story.

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Christine November 19, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Wow, from the very first description of her and her mother’s vegetable garden I was captivated. Inspiring story and her food looks delicious.
Christine´s last [type] ..The last first birthday

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Sarah Henry November 19, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Personally, I want to try that corn on the cob at a sunny street festival next summer.

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Nani Steele November 19, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Love this account Sarah..awesome. Wish she had a little restaurant so we could go!

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Sarah Henry November 20, 2010 at 9:45 am

Now there’s an idea, Nani. I wonder if La Cocina does an open house where you can sample the foods of the folks in their program?

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Nancie McDermott November 20, 2010 at 8:12 am

No wonder I love seeing your new posts show up in my email inbox. I click over here and get a tune-up of the mind and heart. You find great stories and share them so well, with dandy pix! Thanks…

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Sarah Henry November 20, 2010 at 9:46 am

Why Nancie you are too kind. It’s nice to know that your heart and mind get a little tune-up over at Lettuce Eat Kale.

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Sheryl November 21, 2010 at 11:10 am

It’s always so interesting to not only read about food, but to read your very human-interest(ing) account of how these special people got started in their businesses. Thanks for another inspiring take on food.

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Sarah Henry November 21, 2010 at 12:06 pm

As you might have gathered, Sheryl, I’m a total sucker for a person’s back story. I just think if you dig a little people have great stories to share and sooner or later, food enters the narrative.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. November 21, 2010 at 11:59 am

Congrats to Dilsa on the business! I hope her following grows by leaps and bounds.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..GUEST POST- Sicilian Comfort Gravy

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Sarah Henry November 21, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Sweet sentiment, Casey, which I’m sure Dilsa will appreciate. I’ve already passed on her contact details to someone who emailed me looking for a caterer.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi November 21, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Sounds so simple, fresh and gorgeous. I only wish I could get some shipped to New Zealand!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Felted Kiwi Sale on Etsy!

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sarah henry November 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I know what you mean, Melanie. In my experience, it’s tough to find authentic Mexican cuisine Down Under.

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MyKidsEatSquid November 22, 2010 at 6:48 am

We make homemade sopes at home, but I would love to have fresh masa on hand. Dilsa’s food sounds amazing–kudos to La Cocina for making her catering efforts possible. So many people think Mexican food is greasy and coated with cheese, but authentic Mexican food is all about having fresh ingredients and bold flavors.

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Sarah Henry November 22, 2010 at 8:05 am

Well said, MKES. Mexican cuisine is often misunderstood.

And I’ll be coming over for some of your homemade sopes, thanks very much.

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Melanie Haiken November 22, 2010 at 12:25 pm

This is an inspiring story and it’s fun to follow it as part of the Bread Project story. There are so many Mexican and Central American restaurants in San Rafael where I live, yet none that I’ve found have organic or made-from-scratch dishes. I’ve often wished I could get the kind of food here that’s served in homes in Mexico, and this sounds like it!

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Sarah Henry November 22, 2010 at 3:31 pm

I’m with you, Mel: The fact that Dilsa Lugo graduated from The Bread Project and was then accepted into La Cocina’s incubator program to help her launch her business seems like just the kind of progression both programs like to see.

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Kris Bordessa November 23, 2010 at 9:26 am

We have lots of great food here in the islands, but alas, none of the good Mexican food I remember from my time in California. I’d love to learn to cook like this!
Kris Bordessa´s last [type] ..Kahumoku Ohana Hawaiian Music and Lifestyle Workshop

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Sarah Henry November 23, 2010 at 9:50 am

When I moved back to Sydney for two years I missed Mexican food, too, Kris.

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John November 24, 2010 at 10:48 am

Sarah – Los Cilantros sounds great. The way she described how she makes here sopes had my mouth watering and the pictures looked incredible.

I really enjoyed the interview and I have attended the San Francisco Street Food Festival on numerous occassions but I haven’t gotten a chance to try Dilsa Lugo’s food. The next time I will definitely be looking out for Los Cilantros.
John´s last [type] ..Trace That Unknown Number Using A Cell Phone Lookup

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caterers new york September 11, 2011 at 10:55 am

i love the way the food is plated. it really makes me more excited to taste it.

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