Stephanie Bonnin’s La TropiKitchen is an Homage to the Ancestral Cuisines of El Caribe

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Jaramillo.

Colombia native Stephanie Bonnin had been living in NYC for a few years when she realized she’d somehow become her friends’ go-to resource for recipes that tasted like home. “All my Colombian friends here were constantly writing me and asking for recipes, saying ‘Oye como se hace un arroz con coco?’,” she laughs. But though she’d always loved to cook recipes from her home in Barranquilla, Bonnin never realized it would become more than a hobby until personal tragedy struck. In 2014, her father passed away, sending her into a depression that lasted two years. As she attempted to cope with her grief, she found that only cooking was able to bring her out of the fog and make her feel fully present in the moment. So, she decided to leave her previous career as a lawyer behind, and attend the Institute of Culinary Education, putting her on a path that soon found her cooking on the line in some of NYC’s most acclaimed fine-dining establishments, including Enrique Olvera’s famed Cosme.

Along the way, Bonnin realized that her true passion went beyond merely cooking – she wanted to use gastronomy as a way to help people connect with their cultural heritage and with one another. And thus, her project La TropiKitchen was born – a food blog and business focused on the ancestral gastronomic traditions of Latin American Caribbean regions. Below, we caught up with Stephanie to hear more about her journey to becoming a food entrepreneur, how she’s connecting people through cuisine, and what’s next for La TropiKitchen.

What was your journey to cooking professionally?

I’ve been hustling all my life. I studied law in Colombia, and I was a lawyer. Then, I met my husband and came to the US. I’ve always been creative, and so [once I was in NYC] I started taking graphic design classes at Hunter College while I was processing my US residency. I was basically starting my life over. I did freelancing here and there, before finding my real passion, which is cooking and telling a story through gastronomy.

How did you realize food was your passion?

I suffered from chronic depression for two years. My father passed away in 2014, and I entered into a deep depression while I was here in New York. I went to therapy – which is why I always recommend therapy to people – and I realized that the only time I felt at peace and fully present was when I was cooking. So initially, cooking was a tool to get out of my depression. My whole life, I’d always loved to cook, and I’d always loved traditional dishes, so after I realized how it was helping me, I decided to go to culinary school. And while I was studying, I realized that all my friends from Colombia were constantly writing me asking me for recipes. Because, when you’re in another country you miss the food from home. So, that’s how I began writing recipes. Eventually my friends persuaded me to start a blog – and that’s how La TropiKitchen started, as a blog. But I quickly realized the concept had so much momentum behind it, and so many people were interested, that it began evolving almost immediately and turning into something more.

How would you describe La TropiKitchen?

La Tropikitchen is my baby. It was inspired by my experience as a Latina woman who has always cared about gastronomic traditions, especially those of my home country of Colombia. I realized that young people are losing their connection to these culinary traditions of our grandmothers, of our ancestors. So before I started culinary school in NYC, I decided to reconnect with Colombia’s gastronomic traditions, and I did a two month trip through all the states in Colombia’s Caribbean region. That was the inspiration to start my project. And obviously living in the United States played a role too. La Tropikitchen started as a space for Colombians here to come together, and it has since expanded to include all Latinos in NYC, who can come and reconnect with the food customs of our heritage. That’s why I started doing sancochos at my house, where I cook over an open fire, and invite people for dinner. But ultimately, the project is about more than cooking sancochos or tamales or soups and selling them – it seeks to help people connect with their culture through gastronomy.

There is no cuisine without culture. I’m not interested in people thinking my tamales are the most delicious in the world, what I care about is that you eat one of my tamales or one of my soups and that it transports you – to your abuela’s house, to Colombia, to Peru, to Argentina. Because that’s the other thing – my cooking is also in dialogue with being in NYC, and the way that I’ve connected with so many other cultures here. Working in the kitchen at Cosme I was cooking Mexican food alongside Venezuelans, Peruvians, Colombians, people from all parts of Latin America and even Russia! The kitchen becomes a place where people from all cultures can connect. So that’s what I hope La Tropikitchen conveys – I want you to remember the tastes of your home, but also realize you are part of something bigger, a larger global community.

What did you learn from working at Cosme? Did it inform your project?

Enrique Olvera is a marvelous chef. People always think of “fancy eating” as going to a French or Italian or Japanese restaurant, but he succeeded in elevating the ancestral cuisine of Mexico. He succeeded in understanding all the elements of these ancient traditions, the importance of traditional ingredients – much like Virgilio Martinez of Central is also doing in Peru. Seeing the way they merged these traditions with the modern elements of fine dining was inspiring to me. So that was a big reason why I sought out work at Cosme.

How do you connect with your clients?

I’m a member of the Bushwick Co-Op, I’m in charge of all the outreach, and that’s how the community connects. The neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, so there are the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities that have been there a long time, but also newcomers who are arriving. And this food co-op has been a great way to create community; we support each other. I also have gotten lots of business through word of mouth – I recently had someone drive one hour to buy my tamales because she heard about my food! That’s why I’ll never compromise on the quality, the way I cook or even the way I tie up the tamales, because it’s all part of the experience. And I’m lucky that one of my best friends is Li Saumet of Bomba Estereo, and she has promoted my project a lot which has really helped.

When it comes to starting your own business, what were your biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is facing yourself. If you have a business plan, understand your numbers, and have a good product, then you’re on the right track. But you have to also deal with yourself, with the insecurities that you might not be good enough, the fear of failure, or of not being empowered. Facing that every day is the biggest challenge, but as long as you have a business plan, you understands your costs and profits, and how to do outreach, then the business runs.

With that said, having a food business in NYC isn’t easy, you have to make a big investment. For example, I had to pay a lot of money to get my trademark, get the proper licenses, to get access to a commercial kitchen so I can produce orders big enough to make money. So all that stuff is challenging, and there are a lot of restrictions in the city.

What was your biggest learning?

Being disciplined and consistent is the biggest thing I’ve learned to do. You have to work your ass off if you want to get somewhere, and be consistent. I don’t have a 9-5 job or an office, but I know that if I want to get an order out I need to wake up at 8am and go to bed at 2am, and get up the next day and do it all again. My business is food, so the day my recipes stop tasting the same I’ll lose my clients. So being consistent and having discipline is my biggest lesson.

Any tips or advice you would share with budding entrepreneurs?

Do what you’re passionate about. You can have a really cool business idea, but if you’re not passionate about it, you’re not going to have the drive needed to get up every day and work hard and feel grateful that you get to do it. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who think “Oh I’ll start x business because people will like it and it will sell well,” but they don’t think about doing what they really care about and what motivates them. And to me that’s the key to success. Cooking is hard work. If I weren’t passionate about it, I wouldn’t be able to do it well.

What do you hope is next for La Tropikitchen?

The plans for Tropikitchen are to be at [NYC food fair] Smorgasburg this year. I’m in the middle of the process to get a booth. My dream in two years is to have my own shop in Bushwick, which is where I live. The majority of my clients are actually Bushwick locals, and at least half of them are not Latinos but just love the food! And in the meantime I’m slowly working on a book called Brujería Tropical which documents all these recipes and the stories behind the ancestral cooking traditions of the Caribbean.