Leading Ladies: Meet five driven women reshaping San Antonio’s food scene

click to enlarge Meet five women working toward strengthening San Antonio's relationship with food. - JOSH HUSKIN
Josh Huskin
Meet five women working toward strengthening San Antonio's relationship with food.
San Antonio’s food and beverage industry is still largely dominated by men, but the city is also home to female culinary powerhouses who aren’t waiting around to claim their seat at the table.

These five fearless women leaving a mark on the local culinary scene are educated, confident and, maybe most importantly, growing in influence. They have used their dedication and energy to reach the top, develop innovative brands and chair impact-making organizations — sometimes while being the only woman on their team.

click to enlarge JOSH HUSKIN
Josh Huskin
Hunger Buster: Jamie Gonzalez is bringing fresh produce to inner-city neighborhoods, one bodega at a time

Hunger fighter Jamie Gonzalez isn’t afraid to make a big impression. After all, she signs her emails with the phrase “Puta de la Fruta.”

That kind of chutzpah has served the 5-foot-tall San Antonio native as she worked to build rapport with chefs and community leaders, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s got 15 years’ experience in produce distribution and food manufacturing.

As creator of the Big Fresh Market Box — which has delivered over 15,000 boxes of fresh produce to San Antonio households since its June 2019 launch — and co-creator of Mercado por tu Corazón, a traveling produce market, Gonzalez uses those strengths to nourish the community in nontraditional ways.

“I always knew I wanted to feed people. I just didn’t want to do it in a traditional kitchen setting,” she said. “Participating in the Food Policy Council of San Antonio is the No. 1 thing that helped me shape my food purpose. It connected the business of food that I love to my passion for community and my life-long desire to feed people.”

Beyond serving as a board member on the Food Policy Council of San Antonio, she donates time to the council’s Food Justice, Food Waste and Healthy Corner Store work groups. She also works with the Alamo Colleges District Sustainable Urban Food Systems Advisory Committee and Nirenberg’s Fitness Council, and was a keynote speaker at the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit.

Talk about a resume.

Even with all those accolades and future commitments, Gonzalez still wanted to do more to feed the community. That’s why she launched the Big State Produce Bodega Project in 2019 to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to neighborhood stores in San Antonio’s inner city. That program is now on target to serve 32 stores by the end of the year.

“There’s just such an opportunity to open these areas up to different experiences, offer them produce they might not have access to without these programs,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be working with such a large network of professionals that care deeply about feeding people. … We’re a special breed.”

So why, when she’s sporting such an impressive pedigree, does she proudly label herself as “Puta de la Fruta”?

“It’s just me,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve spent years sort of using that moniker as a joke, but it’s become this recognizable brand, this piece of myself that I’m able to own. And if it gets more eyes on the mission of feeding San Antonio, I’m happy to wear it.”

click to enlarge JOSH HUSKIN
Josh Huskin
Culinary Empowerment: Nadia Mavrakis helps immigrants launch their own food-based businesses

When spending time around Nadia Mavrakis, CEO of the nonprofit Culturingua, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by her quiet authority. She doesn’t say much, but when she does, it’s measured and to the point. It has weight.

That kind of gravitas may stem from Mavrakis’ decade of experience in for-profit business strategy. In an industry largely led by middle-aged men, she led projects to design and implement changes designed to make Fortune 500 companies more competitive.

Her current role draws on some of those same skills but puts them to use for a different set of clients. Culturingua works to empower immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) living in San Antonio.

Under Mavrakis’ guidance, the nonprofit recently rolled out the Nourish to Flourish Culinary Entrepreneurship Incubator. The project helps primarily low- and moderate-income immigrants and refugees of MENASA descent launch foodservice-based micro-businesses.

Through Nourish to Flourish, Culturingua aids immigrants in creating business plans and navigating the legal process of setting up their enterprise. It can even connect some to startup capital. In past cases, Nourish to Flourish has facilitated loans of up to $15,000 at 0% interest for startup costs.

“The program enables residents to learn how to apply the culinary skills they brought with them from their home countries to the American culture and business regulations,” Mavrakis said. “Through enabling MENASA residents to express their culinary heritage through microenterprises, we aim to support the City of San Antonio’s designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, celebrating local food heritage and emerging new influences from San Antonio’s newest residents.”

The incubator is poised for even bigger things thanks to the $30,000 grant it landed last month to further develop a hands-on training program in a mobile commercial kitchen. The first of its kind in San Antonio, the mobile kitchen will allow Nourish to Flourish participants to literally test drive culinary concepts without the financial costs usually associated with purchasing and outfitting their own food truck.

By completing Culturingua’s entrepreneurship program, Mavrakis said, individuals can start a business to support themselves and their families while contributing to the local economy and attaining self-actualization — a concept near and dear to her heart.

“Working to support refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia to integrate in America while harnessing their cultural assets has helped me better understand and appreciate the experiences of my father, who immigrated to the U.S. [as a political refugee] from Libya in 1977,” she said.

She also sees the incubator as a way to help yet another wave of MENASA newcomers become part of San Antonio’s cultural fabric.

“This is the experience of many of San Antonio’s newest neighbors from Afghanistan who we are welcoming into their new home in San Antonio following the political disruption [in their country of origin]. We hope to support our newest neighbors from Afghanistan to feel like Afghan Americans, honoring their cultural heritage while embracing them in their new home in America.”

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Josh Huskin
Nurturing with Nature: Katrina Flores of the San Antonio Botanical Garden uses food to build connections

As culinary and wellness programs specialist for the San Antonio Botanical Garden, Katrina Flores is a tireless champion of giving fresh, fun and immersive cuisine the stage it deserves. And it all happens from one of the city’s most stunning natural settings.

The Alamo City native is trained in culinary arts, baking and pastry, food science and nutrition, and uses all those skills in her role at the local landmark. Between outdoor kitchen demonstrations, cooking classes, harvesting classes and pandemic-born DIY programs, Flores’ schedule is full of culinary events designed to deepen San Antonians’ connection with the garden.

“Most people say, ‘I love cooking, it’s creative,’ and for me, it was more of the cultural aspect of it. I think food is a language that’s universal across the world,” Flores said. “In one dish, there’s so much history, so many details to be shared, and that’s what I’m passionate about. I hardly ever cook American food at the Garden. I’m always trying to do other types of cuisines that highlight different spices or techniques. For me, it’s always been about making things interactive and immersive.”

Indeed, Flores aims to embody the Botanical Garden’s mission — to enrich lives through plants and nature. As deliciously as possible, of course.

“I’m working with a horticulturist to bring produce into the garden that you can’t necessarily find at your local H-E-B or Central Market. I really want to expose people to new things,” she said. “The DIY program has definitely pushed the development of the beverage program at the garden. Right now, we’re even making our own botanical gin, where [class attendees] can harvest different botanics that they would like to taste in their own gin.”

Flores also organizes culinary experiences such as the garden’s Foodie Cinema. The monthly event pairs outdoor movie screenings with food connected to the film audiences are seeing. This year’s Dia de los Muertos event matched pork tamales, candied pumpkin, mole negro, pan dulce with champurrado and blood orange marigold margaritas with Disney/Pixar’s Coco.

“These events can be a really great way to heighten your senses, to really immerse yourself in the film,” Flores said. “And to get people together, to create that sense of community.”

For the chef, the connection between the Botanical Garden’s edible yield and those that frequent her many culinary and wellness programs is simple: food is her love language.
“You don’t have to be speaking the same language or practicing the same religion. You could even be polar opposites,” she said. “But when you put a plate of food on a table, not only are you sharing who you are and your culture, you’re sharing love. And that’s a really powerful thing.”

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Josh Huskin
Unbridled Hospitality: Restauranteur Kristina Zhao’s focus on service highlights Sichuan cuisine

Born in the mountainous Chinese province of Guizhou, Kristina Zhao is no stranger to bold flavors and long-observed traditions.

Her San Antonio restaurants, longtime favorite Sichuan House and the four-month-old Dashi Sichuan Kitchen + Bar, specialize in cuisine inspired by the traditional, and often fiery, food of her home province.

Zhao and her team make liberal use of mala — a dried chili pepper concoction prominent in Sichuan cuisine that induces a tingling, then numbing, sensation on the tongue — and introduced many SA residents to xiaochi, or the province’s famous “little eats.”

But the exceptional food isn’t the only intriguing thing about Zhao’s eateries.
What elevates the experience is the way the dishes are served. Dining at either of Zhao’s restaurants is a study in unbridled hospitality. A quiet reverence for her cuisine’s homeland permeates the dining room. It seems to course through the veins of every staff member.

“We really try to look for people who are genuinely interested in food and providing a cohesive experience,” she said. “Like a lot of other restaurants, our new hires will typically be great for the first couple of weeks, and then the ones that don’t necessarily fit weed themselves out. We’re so fortunate to have been left with a team of people that works well together, who wants to work together, and is enthusiastic about coming to work to play, essentially.”

In other words, Zhao’s staff is friendly, knowledgeable and eager to provide an unmatched experience. Transparency is vital to achieving that mix, she explained.

“With me, what you see is what you get, sometimes I even need to bite my tongue, but I really try to be open with people, because I believe it allows us to build that relationship,” Zhao said. “With every new relationship, that’s time and energy we’re both using. … Everybody goes through shit, it all stinks. I always tell my team that if something is going on that affects their time [at the restaurant], they can tell me so I can help them figure it out.”

A month after Dashi’s opening, the restaurant experienced a shaky weekend. Customers complained to managers and one-star reviews showed up online. Zhao quickly acknowledged the issues on social media, candidly noting that service that weekend wasn’t up to the standards set for Dashi guests.

Followers lauded the action as “brave” and impressive. But for Zhao, publicly acknowledging the complaints was the only logical thing to do.

“I think we have the best guests, the most diverse clientele in the city, and a lot of that following started at Sichuan House,” she said. “It only made sense to own up to the fact that the service didn’t match up to what we strive to provide, either. All we can do is be honest about the intent. When the intent is pure, everything else follows suit.”

click to enlarge JOSH HUSKIN
Josh Huskin
Food Positive: Hell's Kitchen competitor Emily Hersh champions food as self-care

San Antonians may know local chef Emily Hersh from her stint on the current season of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen: Young Guns. As the only vegetarian chef to be featured on the show — and one of its youngest contestants — Hersh won over viewers with her bubbly personality and kind demeanor, eventually placing seventh in the competition.

What viewers of the show may not realize is that Hersh, who most recently held a position at Jason Dady’s San Antonio Botanical Garden outpost Jardín, had plenty of on-screen experience prior to the show.

Via her YouTube channel The Self-Help Chef, Hersh spent years in front of the camera exploring food’s connection to all things mental, physical and spiritual.

A dancer for most of her life, the chef once struggled with body image, and that led her to develop an eating disorder. Hersh said the YouTube channel — and subsequent stints in the public eye — have helped her give a voice to food service professionals struggling with mental and physical health.

“Through my eating disorder recovery journey, I became intensely passionate about food. I am incredibly thankful for my struggle because, through it, I discovered my career,” she said. “Through recovery, I slowly started to become curious about food again. … I was able to hone skills combining mental, physical and spiritual health with plant-based cooking.”

Today, Hersh works as a lead recipe developer at Nature's Eats, a Boerne-based outfit that produces seasoned nuts, nut flours and trail mixes. A recent collaboration with Darryl McDaniels — better known as the D.M.C. portion of hip-hop duo Run-D.M.C. — bore a gluten-free almond flour-based cookie with no processed ingredients.

The next project with the legendary emcee? A line of gluten sweet treats called “Darryl Makes Cookies.”

Hersh is also working on opening a vegan barbecue joint called Pure Grit in New York City, as well as continuing to offer cooking classes and private chef services to the San Antonio community. The thread running through all those projects, she said, is her belief that through food, one can realize the importance of self-love and self-care.

“I truly believe that going on the journey of loving myself and being able to be myself authentically landed me in Hell's Kitchen,” Hersh added. “If I hadn't worked on loving myself, I don't think my career would have been what it was. This is why I am so passionate about helping others find self-love and body positivity through food.”

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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