Soweto has been a resident at the Menlo Family Apartments since the building opened in 2013. She is a first-year student in the Culinary Arts at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, and has been teaching cooking to middle school youth at the Menlo Family Center. She will be launching a weekend cooking class at Menlo for youth and their caregivers in January 2020.
Where is your hometown?
Koreatown is my home. I lived at Mariposa and 2nd Street until I was 15 years old. My dad worked at the True Value hardware store at Melrose and Normandie. His boss was Korean. He was my introduction to Korean food—so frickin’ good. My dad’s boss used to invite us to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner and we would go to Korean barbecue and I would have to sit at the kids’ table. They would cook the meat; I wasn’t allowed to touch it. I was so enthused about going to the Korean markets with my dad—the different smells and tastes. I would say, “What’s that?” and he would say, “I don’t know. Let’s buy it.” We would take it home and try it. I remember walking down the aisle looking at all the banchan and I would challenge myself to try something new. Both of my parents were heavy cooks.
Do you live or work in K-Town?
I have been living at Menlo since 2013. I was living with my parents and not living with my parents and I was crashing on people’s couches. I applied for a program that would help me get an apartment.
My mom told me to write down everything that I wanted—a brand-new apartment, wooden floors, fully furnished, lots of sunlight, my own bed, a good kitchen, a bathroom, enough space for a laundry room, on a street where I could go anywhere I wanted. I wanted an easy commute to work.
When I saw my apartment, I literally cried. It was everything I asked for. Plus more. I even got a balcony. I was so overwhelmed with happiness and a sense of this is where I’m supposed to be. He delivered. I moved in immediately. I don’t want to be anywhere else.
How has KYCC helped you pursue a culinary career?
I’ve been cooking since I was 20. And I realized that I wanted to start a food nonprofit. I wrote the business plans. But I realized no one who has money is going to take me seriously if I don’t have a degree.
I came down [to KYCC’s Menlo Family Center] because someone had suggested getting some baby clothes for my baby sister, who had just had my niece. So we came down and I got some baby clothes for Rose and I met Monique (KYCC Menlo Resident Case Manager). I sat down with her and a couple of her colleagues and I told them what I wanted to do with my life. If it came with food, as long as I’m being useful, as long as I’m helping someone fulfill something they wouldn’t be able to do without me being there, I don’t really mind what it is. And they were like, “Okay, how can we make this happen for you?” So we put together a plan for me to go to school and so I’m in culinary school at L.A. Trade Tech.
What is being a culinary student like?
I’m challenging myself to be the best I can be because I know that I am capable. It’s teaching me so much discipline. Being in a kitchen for 12 hours is exhausting. My eyes are bloodshot red and glossy, but I just can’t imagine another place. I’m like, “What are we making?” “What are we doing?” “Let’s get this started.” It just feels natural for me to be there.
It’s a place of humility. You will learn to be humble because you will start at the very bottom. That’s what I want. I want to earn everything that I get. And if that means that I have to fight for it, I will fight for it. I will fight for it so that I can teach someone else.
Tell us about the after-school program at Menlo.
Right before I started school, Caro (KYCC Prevention Specialist) said, “You should do a cooking class here.” I said, “Do you think they’ll take me seriously?” And she said, “Yes,” and I started working with the kids.
The idea is to teach kids how to make after-school snacks on their own. Most of the stuff we make would be non-stovetop, but for kids who were old enough, we would teach them stovetop and that would require supervision. We wanted to make healthier after-school snacks than just going to 7-11 and eating junk.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
Koreatown has its own celestial beauty. Everywhere you look, you just have to pay attention. All cities have that, but Koreatown for me is where I find my relaxation and my peace. Walking around, I know I am safe and no one’s going to bother me. Because I’m not the only black person here. I’m not the only person of color here. It’s a safe place. There’s no place like that. I love it.
I don’t know if I’m okay with all of the transplants. Whenever I go to a neighborhood like Little Ethiopia or Little Armenia or Chinatown or any freakin’, I don’t know the rest of the little towns that are in L.A., there’s a certain level of respect that you have when you’re walking into someone else’s neighborhood. You don’t go and demand that they change the taste of the food, the writing on the wall, or the culture that they’ve built here. That’s what makes America America.
My Koreatown—I love going to the Korean Parade every year. I love going to Korean restaurants and not understanding anything because it’s not in English. But the authentic Korean food that I have here is slowly starting to metamorphosize. Gentrification is slower in Koreatown than in other parts of the city, but it’s still happening and it makes me a little sad. Because there’s no respect for the culture and the environment that is this place, that has its own air about it that I enjoy, that I can’t get anywhere else. You know what I mean? I just can’t. And it’s like home. Coming here is like home.
Where is your favorite place in Koreatown?
I don’t have a favorite place to eat because that’s impossible. But I do have a couple of favorite places that I like to walk around. So one of my favorite places is 6th Street. I like to start at Vermont and walk down. I usually do it at nighttime. Just because all of the Korean shops are open. They’re lit and filled with people.
If there’s one thing that I’ve always appreciated about Asian culture in general, even when I was a kid, it’s that they support their own. They come to your restaurants, they come to your establishments, and they pour their money and hearts into what it is that you do. And that’s always something that I’ve wanted from my own culture and for my own people. I’ve always wanted to build that in my own community.
When I go for my walk, it’s just to see the liveliness, the laughter and the people enjoying themselves candidly. It’s just…it’s fun for me. And to see the artistic things that they do with their shops. That for me is really, really cute as well. I enjoy that.