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Cooking as a Second Language: Finding Common Bonds in the Kitchen

Food and culture is at the center of a new initiative in Richmond called “Cooking as a Second Language.” More than a cooking class, the program seeks to bring new people together and highlight the diversity of the city. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: The next Cooking as a Second Language takes place Sunday December 4th from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm. Register online or call 804-646-7223. Follow the HI Richmond Hostel and Richmond Public Library to learn about future events. Interested in making Ajiaco Santafereño? Here's a translated recipe.


In the spacious kitchen of HI Richmond Hostel, Claudia Martinez Rincon introduces a dish she grew up with in Bogotá, Colombia:

Claudia Martinez: Ajiaco Santafereño

That’s chicken and potato soup.

Martinez: This is traditional from Colombia, especially Sundays. In Colombia every city had different soup, some soup need more time, this is a small easy [soup]. This is from Bogotá...

Martinez is teaching a group of Richmond residents and hostel guests how to make this recipe. They gather around the large center island, filled with fresh produce. Some work on chopping brown, red and yellow potatoes, others tackle a big bowl of fresh limes that need squeezing.

Martinez: We have some herbs, the name is guascas...

She explains the key ingredient for this soup: the mineral rich herb guascas.

Martinez: It’s a little spicy, it’s the flavor for the soup, it’s so delicious...

Fresh guascas is not something you see in Virginia grocery stories, so she ordered a dried version online.

Martinez: I cannot prepare Ajiaco without guascas.

Martinez is the featured chef at the first Cooking as a Second Language, a program sponsored by HI Richmond Hostel, the Richmond Public Library and Birdhouse Market. The idea is to use food as a way to cross cultural barriers says the Library’s Patty Parks.

Patty Parks: You find out that you don’t need to know how to say certain things, but you can talk about texture, you can talk about the way they look, this is a potato, how do you say potato? Different spices, you all start talking about flavors, about smells, about taste. It’s just a different way of learning I think and communicating. So, I think that’s exciting.

Working with the hostel was a natural fit. Located right across the street from the Library’s Main Branch, they’ve partnered on a number of projects.

Parks: We have people who are coming in who are here visiting and they get to come and participate and they start seeing that we are an open community to all kinds of experiences and they get to interact with people that they might not know.

Martinez: It’s a good experience for me, I feel really at home.

Martinez came to Richmond from Colombia five years ago. She has a fine arts degree, but her career path shifted when she came to the US. She now teaches Spanish to children and would like to pursue a Master’s in Education here.

Martinez: I have family in Spain, German, friend in Italy. I feel like something familiar to me [at the cooking workshop].

For many immigrants, building a new life abroad is challenging. It’s hard to be separated from family. Language barriers can impact professional and social opportunities. Cooking as a Second Language aims to be a bridge, creating an accessible space where immigrants can share their expertise, where food becomes an instrument to build trust and relationships.

Martinez: With this [workshop], I feel part of the community. I live close to here, I work close to here, now I have a little more friends close to here.

(Ambient: stirring)

On the stove, chicken is simmering in a fragrant broth. Martinez carefully ladles out a cup at a time and pours them into another pot of medium grain rice, seasoned with red peppers, garlic and shallots. A hostel guest from Belgium stirs the creamy rice.

(Ambient: cooking, laughing)

The slicing and stirring, chopping and peeling has a way of breaking the ice. As each contributes to a common goal, strangers are getting to know each other. Manon Loustaunau is the hostel’s community engagement coordinator. She says food makes it easy to spark all sorts of conversations.

Manon Loustaunau: Do you cook at home? Who cooks at home? You don’t cook, why don’t you cook? Oh, your family didn’t cook, is that because of where you’re from, is that because of personal preference? Oh, you work a lot or you don’t work a lot or my father always cooked or my brother likes to cook… Then it becomes a discussion of family and community gatherings and how do you come together as a community. It was really wonderful the conversations that came out of that.

The kitchen, she says, reminds people of home; it helps us feel comfortable, that we belong.

Loustaunau: Looking at food from different cultures, from different nations, we’re really looking at what makes us the same, what do we have in common and I think that’s very important considering our current political climate where it’s so easy to box people into like “you’re different.” But at the end of the day we had 11 people, just like “This food is so good!” and “I don’t know totally what I’m getting into, but I’m willing to try it.”

(Ambient: table setting)

With the Ajiaco Santafereño soup and the creamy rice complete, two tables are pushed together and set. A hostel guest who was quietly working on his computer is invited to join the meal. Martinez and her sous chefs bring over the steaming soup, plates of sliced avocado and bowls of capers and thick cream.

Group: Cheers to the chef! To the chef!

The Richmond Hostel and Library plan to host Cooking as a Second Language once a month. Future chefs will feature food from Northern India, Turkey and Vietnam. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.