We had the good fortune of connecting with Marin Toscano and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marin, maybe we can start at the very start – the idea – how did you come up with the idea for your business?
I have always been inspired by the way food is woven between community and culture. It was a blessing to grow up in a multicultural family with a mom and dad who passionately taught me recipes passed down by their parents, who immigrated to the East Coast from Syria, Poland, and Sicily. I did not realize how fortunate I was until I went to college and saw that I was among very few students that knew how to cook anything beyond Ramen. I found during my travels that my openness to eating pretty much anything allowed me the ability to connect with people easily, even when we come from disparate backgrounds and cultures. After I graduated college I immediately went to China for almost 2 years as a Fulbright Scholar to do independent research on the connection between TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and the food culture. I was so amazed by how everyday people were able to feel empowered around their preventative health because the TCM was part of the folkloric knowledge; in other words people didn’t need to study it to know the basics. China also showed me how rich and thriving a food culture can be, and gave me a stark comparison to the food culture I knew from the U.S. What really struck me is how healthy food could also be delicious and how it wasn’t pretentious or something reserved upper class. In China, it almost seemed like the lower middle class ate the best, because they ate more traditional foods consisting of small amounts of meat, a high variety of vegetables, and grains. The upper class Chinese were more likely to be eating imported junk food and eating out at KFC, as chains like these had become a social status symbol. Having multiple health issues that doctors had little to offer in my home state of Colorado, a relatively health conscious place, I experienced the beginning of my own healing journey in China. I noticed that my health improved drastically without purposely making any changes in my eating habits. I was subject to eating what the locals ate and this meant more spices, more vegetables, and symbiotic, seasonal food pairings that would impress even the most health-conscious chefs in the US. In some cases, herbs or superfoods for certain conditions were woven into daily meals. I believe that everyone, regardless of income and education level, deserves to be informed enough about the healing properties of food to feel empowered to practice preventative health. When I returned to Denver I knew I wanted to start a business that would help everyday people learn become more passionate about food and health. I saw that although the health food movement was well underway, that it was being led by middle-class white people, and that in some ways it was making “healthy” food seem unattainable to everyday people. I wanted to shift the focus away from only WHAT we eat, to also include HOW we eat for a more holistic view and a consideration of food culture as the foundation to everday peoples health choices. This includes stuff like use of spices to increase digestive assimilation, cooking methods, and even just eating together and having relaxed conversation as crucial factors that allow us to be in “rest and digest” mode. In short, I wanted to start a food cultural revolution and inspire people to learn more about diverse food cultures and how people in other parts of the world view health. I decided to start Food Bridge in 2017, a non profit with a core mission to create a platform where multicultural perspectives on food, health, and culture are included and celebrated in a dialogue that explores innovative approaches to increase increasing wellness in underserved communities!
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Food Bridge is currently not offering catering services due to COVID-19 although if you sign up for our newsletter on our website you’ll be the first to know when we are again. It is also possible we will completely change our model in the spirit of adaptation to assist chefs of color in offering subscription-based meal services to companies and private residencies. This may be the way of the future. In addition to our entrepreneurship development programming, we are also workign on launching a new program called Beyond Cuisine, a multimedia storytelling platform where professional chefs and home chefs alike will be able to share their personal journey with cooking, food culture, and using food as medicine. The goal will be to create dialogue that weaves the concepts of food culture, holistic health, and food justice. We are looking to launch this in early 2021 and are excited to feature an incredible list of up and coming chefs in Denver. We want to create a food series that is not just food porn, but goes beyond the conversation of gourmet cuisine to actually regard chefs as experts in food culture, and therefore experts in holistic health. It is my belief that the U.S. needs inspiration from multiple different cultures to redesign a thriving food culture. This does not mean cultural appropriation or romanticization of other food cultures, but rather looking to people from those cultures to contribute their lived knowledge to the conversation of what the future of food looks like in the U.S. One core value Food Bridge prides itself on is that we do not believe in charity or handouts. Rather, Food Bridge believes that people ready to share their passion and make a difference, regardless of their background or race, need partnership more than anything. Just as every entrepreneur does, they need someone to believe in them and get their ideas/ product / passion out there. Food Bridge is committed to working with people and treating them like people, not charity cases. I want people to see how chefs of color actually are already empowered in many ways, and to view them as expert chefs and teachers of food culture and health. An audience, a microphone, a camera and a kitchen is all that’s needed for these chefs to share their stories and build their businesses.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I am a big fan of hole in the wall restaurants that most people don’t know about!!! I also love DOMO – a Japanese restaurant that many probably already know of! But I would recommend a trip to Aurora to get some unique cuisine. The Mango House is a food court featuring start-up refugee-owned food businesses, and then if you seek out the Ethiopian restaurants in Aurora, especially The Nile, that will also be a treat!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
The first program I started through Food Bridge was a catering incubator, but I never would have thought of it if it weren’t for one woman who became like a sister to me. Upon returning to Denver after living in China, I was still eager to work with the international community and discover more about diverse food cultures. I ended up volunteering with a few organizations serving refugees. Mostly, I ended up working with Burmese refugees, and one woman in particular, Zin Zin, inspired me with her dream to open the first Burmese restaurant in Denver. She didn’t have any capital or marketing know-how so I partnered with her to start organizing these 5 course pop-up dinners. They were a huge success and I saw how much Denver had demand for authentic cuisine and how many immigrant groups were not represented in the restaurant scene we have. Zin Zin (you can follow her YouTube channel by searching Zin Zin’s Burmese Cuisine) was also passionate about using food as medicine and educating the audience. She was not able to open a restaurant before needing to move to Indianapolis with her family, but before she left, people from the dinners started asking her to cater private events. Over the next few years I met more immigrants, refugees, and people of color who wanted to open a restaurant but were daunted by the licensing, marketing, and high upfront overhead required. From having waitressed and worked for catering companies over the last decade (as my side jobs that paid the bills) I knew that it was a tough industry with many obstacles, most of which disproportionatelyact as barries to communities of color. That’s when I decided to start a catering incubator program through Food Bridge that works with chefs of color to launch their food career in the catering industry.
Youtube: Zin Zin’s Burmese Cuisine: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMjpGMCV1luFhs5KWoipUTA
#1 N/A – taken by a friend in China – not professional Caption: Marin in China 2014 #2 N/A – taken by me, Caption: Chef Maria of Cocina de Nana #3 N/A – taken by me Caption: Chef Nelly of Dolce Nelly Peruvian Cuisine #4 N/A – taken by me Caption: Chef Sarah, Syrian Chef at The Mango House