Building Bridges with Food Vrinda Quintero serves up empowerment with culinary training

By Mike Hale

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat. The people who give you their food give you their heart.”
— César Chávez

Vrinda Quintero works as a caterer, but she’s really a bridge builder — a social engineer if you will. Food for her becomes a way to connect people, promote conversations and storytelling, to perhaps see one another in a new light.

It makes perfect sense. After all, the meaning of “to cater” is “to serve, provide for, oblige, meet the needs/wants of others, accommodate.”

“My goal is to bridge our differences so we can move forward,” said Quintero, who in 2017 launched her female-powered catering company Areperia 831 in Santa Cruz, using it as a platform to serve healthy portions of empowerment, sustainability, community, dignity and equity. “Either we all rise or we are not rising. Having conversations over food and about food brings joy to everybody.”

She experienced that joy in her native Venezuela … once, before greed and poor governance catapulted a once-prosperous and thriving country into economic, political and social ruin.

Quintero remembers cooking, eating and sharing with her family in Caracas, her birthplace. She keeps those moments alive within her acute senses, still hearing the laughter, and smelling griddled arepas, the daily bread of Venezuela. Made from white cornmeal, water and salt, the arepa dough is formed into a round disk, cooked, split open and stuffed with a variety of savory ingredients.

A strong symbol for who she is and what she stands for, the arepa would one day become her calling card.

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
— Mary Oliver

Quintero loves poetry. She’s most drawn to Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet who died in January, because everywhere in her verse one finds threads of connectivity. Always inspired and blessed with boundless energy, Quintero spends her days simmering with compassion for others.

Jordan Boyer calls Quintero “fierce, quirky, lovable, passionate, generous, loud and a big-hearted, caretaker for her community.”

The 27-year-old substance use disorder counselor at Encompass Community Services in Aptos met Quintero while they worked together at the nonprofit Homeless Services Center, a work-experience program in Santa Cruz.

Quintero has the ability to coax people outside their comfort zones, and Boyer saw that firsthand. “She pushes me to my limits to encourage what I value, growth and change,” said Boyer. “I know she is always in my corner.”

Quintero spent three years at the HSC, and through her job met volunteers running the Downtown Streets Team.

DST is made up of volunteers who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. They work collaboratively on beautification projects, ultimately trusted to complete tasks and become productive, cooperative team members. In return, they receive a non-cash stipend to help cover basic needs, while taking advantage of case management and employment services to find housing and employment. What’s more, team members perform peer-to-peer outreach to other local men and women experiencing homelessness. “I found that amazing,” Quintero said. So she started serving meals at DST functions, and each Thursday she cooks for regular team meetings.

One day she met a woman who wanted to own her own business. “I started helping her with kitchen work, sanitation, cleanliness, permits,” Quintero said. That led to an idea for a full-scale culinary program where Quintero could empower and train others to cook for themselves, or use those skills in the job market. “The kitchen is a very healing and empowering place,” Quintero said.

The DST reached out to the Salvation Army of Santa Cruz, who now provides the use of its kitchen at the facility on Laurel Street.

“They are super happy to be part of what they are doing,” Quintero said. “Every week we go through different things, how to organize a kitchen, managing the chaos of a kitchen. It’s great to see people gain the confidence to do their own thing. It’s amazing to have everyone make a salsa, for example, and then taste them all together.”

To continue on her bridges theme, Quintero held a DST culinary program fundraiser March 27 at the Santa Cruz Food Lounge. “My thing is arepas, so each of them will make their own filling, their own creation,” she said. “It’s all about connections.”

Denise Acosta, social services director at The Salvation Army, Santa Cruz Corps, jumped at the chance to help connect Quintero’s bridge. “I knew as soon as I met her,” Acosta said. “She cares so much about the people and their potential. Her human kindness abounds.”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
— Naomi Shihab Nye

Quintero loves and lives these words. She believes in “food that has both kindness and passion and in creating all the spaces in between, in food that is vegan and vegetarian and full of flavor.”

She won’t eat or serve meat. How could she, so boiling with social passion? She and her Areperia 831 women vow a mission to “change the narratives and conversations in our community” over delicious, sustainable, ethically sourced food. The group’s credo? “Food should be made with the best ingredients available, be intentional and inspired and that our success should be measured by our social and environmental impact.”

Who is this woman?

Quintero left Venezuela to see the world in 2005, at the height of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution led by president Hugo Chavez. “Things were already bad,” she said. “I could see the signs of what was to come.”

These days Venezuela dominates international news as embattled current President Nicolas Maduro continues to isolate his country from the world. Inflation rates routinely top 1 million  percent, with food, medicine and electricity out of reach for a vast majority, forcing people to flee over closed borders. (The United Nations estimates the number of refugees to reach 5 million — eclipsing even the Syrian refugee crisis.)

Each day Quintero wakes up thinking about her father, her aunt and other family still suffering in Venezuela. But she swallows that worry, and goes to work each day helping others. Always with a smile. She hopes one day to bring her family to Santa Cruz.

She actually studied international affairs in Venezuela. When she finally settled in Santa Cruz she wondered how to best apply her skills. She worked for a time at the Economic Justice Alliance of Santa Cruz County, and then Homeless Services Center.

“I thought the issue of homelessness was huge,” she said. “A person is a person no matter their situation. Respect is key.”

Quintero said she wants to put a face to homelessness. “It’s easy to say ‘there are so many homeless people here,’ but when you sit and have a meal with someone and see their face, it changes people’s minds,” she said. “That’s really powerful and beautiful.”

Her earlier travels took her around the world, to India, China and beyond.

“I have been cooking all my life. The whole culture of a place is within the kitchen. You learn the language. It’s the warmest and yummiest place to be.” She had managed the kitchen at HSC, and when she left she thought, “Why not start my own catering business with a nonprofit side? I wanted to do different things.”

Quintero ventures beyond arepas. “I learned in Asia different foods and combinations,” she said. “Making a plantain-wrapped tamale makes me so happy. It’s who I am, a mixture of different flavors and places I’ve been.”

Quintero finds the time, somehow, to host monthly community cleanups, where she serves free food, perhaps a simple yet flavorful curry with rice. “We just sit down together to eat and share.”

In mid-April she will unite Downtown Streets Team with the Coastal Watershed Council for an afternoon of food and storytelling along the San Lorenzo River near the duck pond.

Five storytellers will be picked at random and given five minutes to tell a story. Anyone can enter, everyone is welcome. It’s free, of course. Areperia 831 will cook, of course. The theme is bridges, of course. Participants share stories of connections, crossing rivers, overcoming differences, whatever inspiration they can share around that theme. Just bring a blanket to sit on.

It’s an example of how people can tear down walls and build bridges instead, apt metaphors of togetherness and acceptance in a world currently measured by the width of its chasms. “She works so incredibly hard for her community and creates spaces for people to be exactly who they are without shame and without judgment,” said Boyer. “I don’t think I know anyone else who can do that.”

Her work has finally been widely recognized, and not through a modern world’s look-at-me self-marketing strategy. She’s too humble for that. Quintero and her work drew attention on March 22 when Event Santa Cruz honored her and others at the 10th annual NEXTie awards at Rio Theatre.

There were 2,500 nominations, resulting in 18 community honorees, including Vrinda Quintero named as Foodie of the Year.

Foodie of the Year? Audience members rose, they applauded heartily, but after hearing her introduction some had to have been a bit confused.

She’s so much more than a foodie.

“Her energy is contagious and her food is delicious,” said Acosta, the Salvation Army believer. “But then she makes the people believe that they can do these things and do them well. They take pride in what they are doing and their accomplishments, I can see the change.”

It all boils down to leadership.

“Vrinda has this way about her where I rarely can say no to her,” Boyer said. “She makes you believe in something just as hard as she does. She does so much for so many people, I can’t help but want to stand by her side and help her.”

And that’s how bridges get built.

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Mike Hale

About Mike Hale

Salinas native Mike Hale is a freelance writer who shares his time between the Monterey Peninsula and the coast of Cornwall in southeast England.