From Peru to Miami, to Spain, to Houston – my journey as a professional chef has taught me that the best food is made with fresh, authentic flavors only found after you immerse yourself in the local community. And in Houston, food is everywhere. Take a drive here and you’ll find restaurants from every corner of the planet! The diversity, not only of food, but of the people and cultures the food represents, is what I love about Houston. And even though I’m originally from Bolivia and have studied and worked in the best culinary institutions around the world, I’m happy to call Houston home.

When I first moved to Houston in 2015, my passion for connecting with the community led me to a nonprofit called the HOPE Clinic, a Cities Changing Diabetes partner providing care to the underserved, or those who are isolated because English isn’t their first language. As someone not from the U.S., I believe in the HOPE Clinic. And as a chef and restauranteur, I felt that especially in this city where the abundance of food may lead to high rates of diabetes and obesity, I could help the HOPE Clinic in their health-focused mission. So with the clinic, I developed Bite of HOPE – a teaching kitchen aiming to make healthy food accessible to Houstonians in need that is now a project under Cities Changing Diabetes – Houston.

Through cooking classes and instruction given to community health influencers like students, nurses, counselors, and my fellow restauranteurs, Bite of HOPE helps people in Houston understand how important food is to their health.

When COVID-19 hit, Bite of HOPE’s dedication to the underserved in our community became more important than ever.

Like so many schools and workplaces that had to adapt during the pandemic, Bite of HOPE went virtual. We expanded our offerings to include online cooking classes for seniors, who may be isolated and cooking for themselves for the first time in years. We started a YouTube channel on which my 6-year-old niece and I share tips for parents and kids cooking healthy meals at home, and partnered with United Health for even more cooking demonstrations on Facebook Live.

I’ve also felt a responsibility to help many of my fellow Houston entrepreneurs, including minorities and immigrant restauranteurs, as they scrambled for customers and their futures during closures and shutdowns. Having run my own restaurants in Bolivia, I saw an opportunity through Bite of HOPE to lend my expertise and help these businesses face the financial challenges of the pandemic by guiding them to adapt their menus with more cost-effective, yet healthier options.

We started this pilot program with a cohort of eight small Latina-women-owned food businesses  - like Sabor y Sazon’s, a mother-daughter-owned Peruvian restaurant.

Here’s what Sabor y Sazon’s said about working with Bite of HOPE: “We strongly believe that this program was key in allowing us to keep our doors open and we feel we are ready to face any challenge the future will bring. The program not only helped us adopt creative strategies and ways to keep our costs down, but most importantly it taught us that incorporating healthy dishes to our menu is possible without incurring in extra expenses.”

I’m happy to share that since working with the first cohort of restaurants including Sabor y Sazon’s, we’re now on our third cohort and already have a waiting list for more participants.

No one’s sure when the pandemic will be over. But when it eventually is, I believe our work at Bite of HOPE will have helped create a more connected community: One in which we understand how nutrition and our health are linked, and the connection between our land and the food we put on our tables; where we appreciate our connections with healthcare workers, and where we connect with one another across cultures. And most of all, my hope is that through these connections, we emerge from the pandemic as a healthier Houston.