Stories Matter: Real Food Real Stories’ Benefit StorySlam

by Nicole Wong

 Real Food Real Stories is a Bay Area nonprofit whose gatherings give people the chance to hear powerful stories of local food-producers and change-makers over thoughtfully sourced food. With each event, RFRS aims to forge community and inspire listeners to care about their local food system. RFRS recently hosted its first annual benefit StorySlam to raise money for their storytelling efforts and to celebrate local food-makers. The night included an auction, food markets featuring multiple vendors, and performances from ten food leaders who shared unique stories around the evening’s theme of “salty and sweet.”

This culminating event was the last of a four-part series of story gatherings, held at Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco, to spotlight leaders in the Bay Area food system. In May, the series featured Steve Sullivan, co-founder of popular Bay Area bakery, the Acme Bread Company. Then in June, the series brought organic produce distributor Veritable Vegetable’s co-owners Bu Nygrens and Karen Salinger to the stage.

And on September 27th was the StorySlam. Airbnb hosted a lineup of ten food-loving storytellers, ranging from passionate bloggers to prominent restaurant owners and even a shepherdess. Though grander in scale than most of the series’ events, the StorySlam embodied all the core elements of a typical Real Food Real Stories gathering: thoughtful food leaders and consumers, heartwarming and insightful stories, and, of course, delicious food.

The evening began with savory and sweet food markets, where guests could exchange tokens for a selection of the night’s dazzling display of locally produced fare. Mushroom-gruyère croissants from Portside Bakery were served next to tasty Venezuelan arepas and ceviche from the Mission-based eatery Pica Pica. Down the line, Genji Sushi prepared unique sushi donuts, round rings of rice covered in a variety of toppings such as salmon, shrimp, avocado, fried shallots, and mayo glaze. Cheese lovers delighted in the freshly cut and melted raclette from Garden Variety Cheese, and to round out the evening, chili sauce producer Spice Mama whipped up bacon and date waffles.

The sweet market on the opposite side of the venue also delivered. From Alter Eco’s sumptuous truffles to Petit Pot’s pot de crème, each booth prepared eaters for what seemed to be the grand finale of the dessert aisle: the gelato cart. As word of the incredible gelato buzzed through the crowd, the line behind the cart swelled in size. San Francisco artisan food companies Coletta Gelato and Nana Joe’s Granola served up unforgettable combinations specially made for the evening. The sea salt finish of the coconut cranberry granola accented the sweetness of the strawberry sorbetto, and with these flavors still lingering on my tongue, I was ready for the night’s stories.

The speakers came up one by one to the black stage, lit only by the glowing letters RFRS and a single spotlight. The “salty and sweet” theme allowed storytellers to weave together lessons from both food and life and speak vulnerably about their experiences.

Dilsa Lugo of the restaurant Los Cilantros began the night with a story about the versatility of maiz as an ingredient and how she’s come to appreciate the role that cooking and family play in her life. Chefs Laurence Jossel of Nopa and Yoni Levy of Outerlands described, with humor, the searing trials they experienced working their way through many kitchens. Whereas Levy tackled the salty-sweet theme by speaking about how this balance is the key to eliciting flavor from a dish, Jossel spoke of the heartbreak that came with a painful divorce and rebuilding his life alongside his culinary career.

Later on, Nik Sharma, writer of the blog A Brown Table, and Margo True, who edits the food section of Sunset Magazine, spoke about the power of food media to promote social justice. Sharma told a story of what it was like to find his voice through food photography. Early on in his blogging career, he encountered negative comments about his race that made him hesitate pursuing photography professionally. However, upon observing that food media often did not reflect the racial diversity he noticed in the kitchen, he decided to photograph people of color in order to highlight their important role in the food system. For her part, True spoke about an encounter with an old friend whose world views diverged sharply from her own, and how she learned to remain humble while speaking up against intolerant views.

The night concluded with an entertaining and moving story from Pim Techamuanvivit, who founded Kin Khao Thai Eatery in San Francisco. She talked about taking creative risks to open a Thai restaurant that actively questioned and departed from the typical norms of American Thai cuisine: for instance, pad thai is intentionally absent from her menu. And, with grace, Techamuanvivit spoke about the year she was both diagnosed with breast cancer and awarded a Michelin star.

Real Food Real Stories’ first benefit StorySlam revealed the importance of story in bringing communities together to support local food producers and change-makers.  That evening, each story and its respective storyteller captured a bit of my heart, made me laugh in recognition, or hold my breath in compassion. I realized that it’s impossible to truly value the food we eat if we do not first try to understand the stories of the people who helped make that food.

Rebecca King, a local cheesemaker and one of the speakers of the evening, repeated the phrase “eat my poem” throughout her story. Like an incantation, it reminded us, the audience, that the food we eat is imbued with, and in fact inseparable from, the struggles, triumphs, great love, and clear vision of food producers themselves. I left — as I imagine most other audience members did — feeling invested in each storyteller’s life and their work. In the end, food, and food media, intimately connect us to other people’s lives — and this is exactly how it should be.

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