When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Bahia El Oddi thought right away of the small, independent restaurants she loves, many of them run by immigrant women now losing their livelihoods. "I felt a pinch in my heart," says the Harvard Business School graduate and Moroccan native. These places are like second homes for her. "I always know the names of the people in the places I go. When I saw all the restaurants close, I really started to cry in the streets."
El Oddi has worked at companies like Google and Bain & Company, and cofounded TRUE Africa University, an online educational effort empowering African youth. She took those skills and launched a new project, CoCaSha — a condensation of “Connect, Care & Share” — to give these entrepreneurs a platform and a source of revenue.
CoCaSha, launched in May, is still in its early stages. The website offers virtual cooking classes taught by chefs whose restaurants or catering businesses are currently on hold. The women share dishes from their own cultures with students who are eager to learn from the source. Participants go to the website — www.cocasha.org — and find menus to book, along with shopping lists. They might choose one featuring Nigerian street food, for example, or Moroccan chicken tagine with carrot salad. And then everyone preps and cooks together. In addition to providing the platform, El Oddi coaches the chefs on their digital, communication, and marketing skills.
Nadine James is one of the women offering lessons on CoCaSha. She runs a catering business in Worcester, providing food for business meetings and selling smoothies and natural juices. “After coronavirus, everything got shut down and CoCaSha stepped in, giving me a chance to gain revenue while being at home. They give me a platform to achieve my dream: to be a world chef. This coming Sunday I will be cooking with someone in Germany. It’s getting me out there. And I would not achieve that if I did not have this platform,” says James, who is originally from Jamaica. It is also a teachable moment for her four children. “With this opportunity, they can see that I’m working: There is nothing to do, everyone is shut down, but my mom found a way to work and help other people be happy at their home.”
For her next class, she will be teaching students to make Jamaican curry with black-eyed peas and cabbage. "I like it to be like a big family coming over and cooking," she says. "I want the feeling to be like you're in Jamaica, you're with me cooking, we are not in quarantine, and you are enjoying yourself."
Emma Hodge took a Moroccan cooking class, and then her whole family signed up to learn how to make Nigerian dishes. It was a way for them to spend time together when coronavirus is keeping them physically separated.
“We are thinking about: What are ways we can support small businesses and people whose livelihood is really at stake right now? It’s nice to be able to find a way to do that that was not a donation, but something that was imagining a potentially new business opportunity,” Hodge says. “Even if we’re still not masters of Nigerian street food, it was fun to learn about it and be part of imagining a new way toward the exchange of culture, ideas, and stories that usually happens over food.”
CoCaSha achieves several aims at once, El Oddi says. It helps these entrepreneurs earn a living right now, and it offers them a path into the digital future. And then there are the social and emotional components. “It’s a way to create deep connection between people. You usually don’t know the name of the cook. You bridge divides and create community,” she says. “It’s a place where you hear all the voices and appreciate them.”
To sign up for one of CoCaSha’s cooking classes, go to www.cocasha.org.