The kitchen incubator group, La Cocina, has helped many immigrants realize their dreams in the Bay Area of California. The group helps people with everything from a business plan and legal issues to branding and menu design. Two newcomers to the group are Wafa and Mounir Bahloul. Their business concept, Kayma, has been picked to be part of La Cocina’s food hall, opening in 2020. Francis Lam visited the couple in their home to talk about what's like to be newly arrived in the U.S. and searching for not only work but a way to bring your passion to life.

Francis Lam: We’re sitting by the kitchen. This is where the dream begins as you are starting this journey. You came to this country at different times. Mounir, you came to this country about ten years ago, and Wafa almost five years. What brought you here?

Wafa Bahloul: I got married. I followed my husband.

Mournir Bahloul: For me,  it’s life – a choice.

FL: It’s for the dream, right?

MB: Yes.

FL: You came from Algeria. What was it like when you first arrived? What was your thought? What was your feeling?

MB: Fear, for me. Scared. It’s like a human being, when you go somewhere, it’s different. It’s scary somehow.

FL: What did you do for work when you arrived?  

MB: Work is like, you don’t have much choice around here when you come from another country and no work experience here in the US. Doesn’t matter what you did back home in Algeria or wherever else in the world. Once you’re here you have the language barrier, you don’t talk much English, pretty much you’re going to end up where you don’t talk or learn English, which is maybe the dish pit in a restaurant, where you just wash dishes and following direct orders – do this, do that, the easy stuff. I ended up in the food industry, working at a Chuck E. Cheese.

FL: Really?

MB: Yeah. At Chuck E. Cheese, making pies. It was fun, but it totally was another world.

FL: When did you get the idea that you wanted to cook your own food, that you wanted to cook Algerian food?

MB: I was starving – not to death, but I was starved. I missed my mom’s cooking and everything. I couldn’t adapt. I lost a lot of weight, and it’s like okay, something has to happen. I have to cook. I called my mom, like hey, I want to try this. What’s the easy stuff I can try? Little by little I started cooking. Sometimes it doesn’t taste good. [laughing] I have to eat it. You learn from your mistakes, and luckily I didn’t have anyone over. It was just me.

book cover of We Are La Cocina with diverse images of women's faces and dishes of food We Are La Cocina by Leticia Landa and Caleb Zigas

FL: Wafa, your family had a food business in Algeria, right? Your mother?

WB: Yeah, and it’s always my dream; I follow my dream. I had like four years in university, but my mom, she’s a chef and she’s a teacher for me. She’s my model, and I follow her. She cooked everything. She did pastry. When I came here, I worked in a restaurant and I felt like when I go to work I felt it’s mine – always the honor. Always the same questions she’s asking me, “How are you doing, Wafa?” Like the last of daylight I say, “Okay. Tired but happy.” That’s always my answer: Okay. Tired but happy. I feel really good.

FL: If you already feel happy cooking in someone else’s restaurant, how’s it going to feel when you have your own?

WB: My restaurant? I can’t believe – like oh wow, I’m in! [laughs]

FL: What are you scared of? What are you nervous about?

WB: I don’t want to say scared. I’m not scared about anything. I’m in. Just go for it. Keep going.

FL: Just do the thing you know you can do.

WB: Yeah. And I can do it.

FL: Good luck.

WB: Thank you.

FL: And thank you for having us.

MB: Thank you.

Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.