How Chef Yadi Garcia Is Reclaiming Ancestral Food Through Community Cooking Classes

The Bronx-born Dominican-American is cooking for her people.

Photo courtesy of Yadi Garcia; Design: Mia Coleman/Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Yadi Garcia; Design: Mia Coleman/Thrillist

When Yadi Garcia was in culinary school, there was a business portion of her studies where students were asked to determine what kind of chef they would be. The assumption is that you would open a catering company, or become a private chef, or work in a restaurant. But the South Bronx-raised Garcia had other plans — she wanted to go to farms and cook. And not just any farms, but urban farms.

“They're like, ‘You live in New York. This ain't the Midwest, girl.’ And I'm like, ‘No, it's totally possible,’” she tells Thrillist. “‘I'm going to the 'hood. I'm going to diabetes centers, I'm going to CBOs [community-based organizations], I'm going to church basements. I'm going to schools, I'm going to farms, and I'm going to cook with community members.’"

For the past six years, that’s exactly what Garcia has done. The first-generation American, whose family hails from the Dominican Republic, works as a community chef, teaching cooking classes in an open-air kitchen at Randall’s Island Urban Farm, as well as programs she does in partnership with schools such as Columbia University and the NYC Parks Department.

"I thought about my great-grandmother who lived to be 99 years old. It was then that I started to really contemplate that food and health had a connection."

The Randall’s Island classes are free and open to all ages in the community, and take advantage of the rice fields and 30-40 different kinds of vegetables that grow on the urban farm. The farm setting is about connecting people to the whole food ecosystem, starting with the seed and learning how to cook from root to frond. But rather than making salads and smoothies, she’s showing how fresh produce can be used in Latin cooking, whipping up Caribbean roasted eggplant, rice and pigeon peas, and roti from scratch.

“One of the classes that I've taught the most, over 300 times, is this class called Sofrito,” Garcia says. “Sofrito is the most well-known Caribbean marinade. It's a blend of herbs and vegetables, and it's how we season our meats, our stews, and our rices. I love to use that as an introduction point, to say, ‘Hey, we do eat vegetables. We just maybe don't eat it roasted or in a big salad. But we blend it, and we use it to season our food.’"

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Garcia first caught the cooking bug when she was in college at NYU. “I had a pretty bad accident: I fell down some stairs and I had four herniated discs. I was really sick, and I gained a lot of weight,” she says. “I was just trying to reclaim my health, and I thought about my great-grandmother who lived to be 99 years old. I thought about how strong the elders are and how they were this symbol of knowledge and reverence. It was then that I started to really contemplate that food and health had a connection.”

That inspired her to enroll in the Natural Gourmet Center inside the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. The health-supportive culinary program takes a holistic approach to plant-based, nutrition-minded cooking with an emphasis on whole foods and wellness. Through that education, Garcia discovered not only healing for her own body, but a mission to reclaim the way she grew up eating during summers spent in the Dominican Republic with her grandparents.

“Food became such an integral part of my health journey and my re-education and re-acclimation to my roots. It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. “It became so obvious that we lacked a lot of representation. It was hard for me to find info on this stuff or find grandma's recipes — not just my own, but other people's recipes and styles of cooking. I decided to make this my life mission, to get out there and share recipes that I grew up with, to share ancestral cooking pathways. It was a very personal journey that then became very communal.”

Photo courtesy of Yadi Garcia; Design: Mia Coleman/Thrillist

That ethos inspired her platform Happy Healthy Latina, where she seeks to debunk misinformation around cultural foods, namely that it’s fatty and indulgent, an assumption often based around celebration foods. She wants to show her followers that Latin food can respect its cultural roots while being healthy, too.

“I'm trying to get a lot of people to get away from very high sodium foods or trans fats or things that are not good for us, without taking away the foods that we actually make,” Garcia says. “The way that you season your food plays into it deeply, especially in Caribbean, Hispanic, and African-American culture — do not give us just salt and pepper, and do not give us any bland food.”

"I decided to make this my life mission, to get out there and share recipes that I grew up with. It was a very personal journey that then became very communal."

One representation of that is Eat Loisa, a food brand she is part-owner of that makes organic sazón and adobo seasonings, along with a sofrito cooking sauce that is based on Garcia’s family recipe, with her own addition of apple cider vinegar and turmeric for a healthful kick.

“It’s an easy way [to introduce turmeric] because my community is not going to have golden lattes,” she says. “But you can get it into their sofrito, and they can put it in their beans, and then it's very palatable. It's an easy way to say you don't have to take something away to enjoy the benefits of other [ingredients] that we've learned about.”

Photo courtesy of Yadi Garcia; Design: Mia Coleman/Thrillist

Next, Garcia dreams of building an African/Caribbean/Latin American cooking school in the Bronx that would serve as a permanent community-based space that people could come to regardless of the season. Her hope is that this would expose this style of cooking to more people, so that you wouldn't have to go to a Caribbean restaurant or have a family member teach you in order to experience it.

“Anywhere you go in Europe, there’s a million cooking schools. In Latin America, you don't have that; in the Caribbean, you don't have that,” she says. “I would like us to reclaim our power and our stories and have a formal space where you can come and learn these ancestral cooking techniques.”

“Cooking is my medium to connect with the world and the community,” she adds. “But the message is about ancestral reverence, about being seen, about being very proud of where we come from. In our communities of color, we talk a lot about our pain, and I'm using food as a tool to bring joy and to celebrate the richness of our cultures and our communities. I think of myself as a culinary historian, to help to preserve our stories and to push them forward. I think that it's really important to hold space for that, and I'm very humbled and honored to be able to do this work.”