Limitless Woman: Chef, Travel Writer, Book Artist, Teacher, Dancer

Perla Yasmeen Meléndez has taught me to live by my heart. Her passionate drive has inspired me ever since I met her in 2004 in the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I interviewed her for the “Limitless” series this week.

Perla’s Roles/Jobs:
  • Chef and Founder of Two Mamacitas Pop-Up Parties
  • Elementary and Middle School Cooking Teacher at Head Royce School
  • Graduate Student at Mills College: Currently working on her MFA Book Art and Creative Writing thesis project, which will be opening at Mercury 20 Gallery in downtown Oakland on January 29, 2015
  • Heads Up Enrichment/Character Building Teacher at Head Royce School through the Heads Up Program for middle school students from Oakland public schools
  • Conversational Spanish Teacher for two immigration lawyers based in Oakland, CA
  • Member of the Chapter 510 Non-Profit Literacy Project, which works with Oakland public schools and is modeled after Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia in San Francisco.
  • Traveler: Spent five years living, studying, and working in Costa Rica, and traveled throughout Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
  • Published travel writer and book artist: Wrote for a local travel magazine called Nature Landings while living in Costa Rica, sold artist’s books to the UCSB Special Collections Library, published a short story in the anthology, Windows into My World, in 2007
  • Dancer: Though not a professional dancer, Perla studied ballet for seven years, studied Polynesian dance for two years, picked up a few salsa moves while living in Costa Rica, and she’s currently taking West African dance at the YMCA.
1. What are you currently doing that you would like to tell us about? 

Right now I’m teaching ” Food Revolution ” classes, which were inspired by a lesson that I taught during one of the Heads Up Saturday sessions.  The theme I was told to address in a meaningful way was “Order vs. Chaos”.  At first I was stumped! I had to figure out what place order and chaos had in my life and how I could translate that into an interesting lesson for my kids. I thought about rules, and how much I despise them, and then I thought about recipes–how you’ve got to learn them, to nail them, and then finally forget about them in order to really give yourself to the dish.

So, I split my class into three groups and had some of my students make pancakes following a recipe step-by-step. Then I had the second group try to make pancakes without any recipe at all, and no knowledge of how or what to do: complete chaos. The third group made pancakes using the recipe but got to add some special treats to the mix that the recipe didn’t call for: chocolate chips! Balance! Obviously everyone loved the chocolate chip ones, and we talked about how neither complete order nor complete chaos is possible or desirable to live well. The kids loved cooking, and I loved teaching them lessons via something so tangible and edible as food.

perla cooking class food revolution

Later, the opportunity to teach a course for the Heads Up and Head Royce summer programs came, and I proposed what would be the first cooking class offered in the history of the program! They approved it, and it was so popular that they invited me to teach it during the school year at the after school program.

I called it Food Revolution because I could tell that it was stirring things up (no pun intended) in these kids’ lives.They are excited and sometimes hesitant to try new fruits and vegetables. They are amazed by the act of making something from scratch, and by the fact that nothing came from a box or a bottle– that it all came from the earth! They scribble down the recipes all giddily and take them home to their families and cook for them, dragging their parents to the market to get the same ingredients we used in class. Their parents tell me about the recipes they’re learning from their kids. I love that the knowledge isn’t stopping with my students. It’s reaching their families, and hopefully the community we all share.

This summer the Heads Up program was only able to satisfy 20% of the requests for enrollment in the Food Revolution class, and I am teaching 8 classes for the 6 week summer program. I’ll  be teaching about 2-3 for the fall after school program.

Didn’t you also just start a pop-up restaurant in Oakland, CA?

Yes, it’s called Two Mamacitas Pop-Up Parties. I  definitely hadn’t even heard of any pop-up restaurants before moving to the Bay Area, but I have always been drawn to food trucks, ice cream trucks, and mobile vendors like the ones in my old Echo Park neighborhood that used to sell elotes, chicharrones, raspados, and fruit with chile and lime out of converted shopping carts. I loved the mysterious quality of something so delicious just passing through and then disappearing. When they came around the block, it was an event! Everyone would rush out of their houses and huddle around the little cart.

Here in Oakland, there are restaurants that rent out their space on the days that they’re closed. Sometimes the people popping up on these days are really well-known chefs. Sometimes they are people that would like to have their own full time restaurant but can’t afford it, or maybe they just want to do it once in a while. Either way, these pop-up restaurants bring a special menu to the space for the time that they’re there, and then disappear once the day/night is over.

I’ve been daydreaming about having my very own pop-up restaurant, and then the opportunity came about, thanks to Two Mammas’ Vegan Kitchen. I was working full-time teaching 8 cooking classes a day, working on my thesis, researching and applying for grants, trying to finish the art to put on the walls of Two Mammas’ Vegan Kitchen, along with a few other projects, but I could NOT pass up the opportunity to use this space for my pop-up restaurant. Every voice inside me said YES! Don’t think about how you’ll do it. Just know that you can and you will. So I did.

I immediately got in touch with my good friend Ava Rosen, and asked if she’d be up for starting this pop-up restaurant with me. We both love food, art, and music, and wanted to join those three things. We decided that we would focus on Latin American cuisine, which is one my favorites.

Our events at Two Mammas Vegan Kitchen are on a monthly basis, have a fixed menu for the night, showcase local art, and feature a band! Our first one was on July 4th, and it was a big hit. Our next one will be on August 8th. Click here to learn more.

two mamacitas poster

2. Who or what has inspired you to do all of this? 

I’m inspired by my parents and their love for good food, along with their ambition and drive to make things happen, no matter what. In fact, those are probably the three main ingredients for my success with Two Mamacitas, and the cooking classes.

I  also consider my travels– whether it be international or in my own neighborhood– research for my current and future projects. I am influenced by sounds, color, architecture, dance, and the community I’m in.  

3. What drives you to go beyond the norm and put so much time and effort into doing so many different things?

This is my norm. I don’t pay any mind to anyone else’s. I’m just doing what I love to do, what makes me happy. As much as possible. When you’re doing something that brings you so much joy, and brings joy to other people as well, time and effort are almost irrelevant. When things get difficult, I am able to push through because I know that the reason I’m involved in whatever it is that I’m doing is because I want to be doing it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. I’ve got too many things I love to do to be doing something  that I don’t enjoy doing. No time for that!

4. What challenges have you faced in pursuing these different interests and goals, and how do you balance it all?

I think balance is the biggest and most constant challenge for me. I always want to do so many things and be a part of everything all the time. If an opportunity to do something great comes along, I feel like I don’t want to miss out on it. But what I’ve learned (over and over again) is that it’s much better to do a few great things really well, than to do a gazillion and one things half-heartedly. I’ve also learned that there will always be more chances to do cool things. I have to constantly remind myself of this, but I am getting better at not overloading myself with things to do, and only choosing what is worth my time.

5. What specific steps did you have to take to get to where you are today? 

Throughout high school I worked at Skylight Books where I found out about WriteGirl, a mentoring program that paired professional women writers with aspiring teen girl writers. Through WriteGirl, I learned of a month-long writing workshop at California State Summer School for the Arts.

I attended with a full scholarship, and my roommate was about to start school in the College of Creative Studies at UCSB. She told me all about this amazing program, I applied, and a year later, started the BA Creative Writing program at CCS. I took Food Writing  with Caroline Allen and Travel Narratives with Jacob Berman, and started craving some travels of my own.

Book Arts "Boys I've Known" By Perla Yasmeen Melendez
Samples from Perla’s work as a book artist
perla book arts ice cream poems
Perla constructed each treat and they all have poems printed inside of them.

I decided to study in Costa Rica during my junior year at UCSB. I took printmaking, poetry, and literature classes at the Universidad de Costa Rica, San Pedro, and started exploring their cuisine. I extended my semester in CR to a year, and then extended the year to a year and a half. I got a research grant to write a short travel guide including food, music, and art. I returned to UCSB for my last year, graduated with a BA in Book Art and a BA in Creative Writing, and returned to Costa Rica for a two year Culinary Arts program.

One day, near the end of the program, I realized that I was really missing being a part of a community of writers and artists. I applied to the Book Art & Creative Writing program at Mills College, got a accepted, and moved to Oakland, CA.

A few days after moving to Oakland, I had an interview to be an enrichment teacher for the Heads Up program. I got the job, and started school. Mills is a small school, and the word got around that I had an interest in event planning and cooking. I was awarded two fellowships that required that I use both of these skills. Through these jobs, I met Jess and Jules from Two Mammas’ Vegan Kitchen. One thing leads to another!

6. Did you ever imagine doing things like this as a teenager? How have you changed since those adolescent years?

I’m not sure I ever imaged working with food or art as a teen. I loved to eat, but hadn’t yet discovered my love for cooking. What I was really into was writing. I wanted to grow up, drive a Volvo, and be a great poet like some of my favorite  teachers and mentors. It was through my writing education that I discovered food writing, and travel writing, and teaching. I think I will always be a writer, but what I mostly am right now is a chef.

One way that I’ve changed since my teen years is that I’ve gotten over being shy and soft-spoken. As a child and throughout most of my adolescence I was really concerned about what everyone else thought of me. If something bothered me or offended me, I might not speak up about it unless I was with someone who I really trusted. I was terrified of asking for help or asking someone for a favor. Mainly,  I didn’t want to piss anyone off.

For the longest time, I let people get away with saying my name wrong. They’d say “Perla” but pronounce it “ Pur-la” instead of “Pear-la” and I didn’t even correct them. I got back from living in Costa Rica, where everyone could say my name correctly, and I decided that I needed to stand up for myself, tell the world what I wanted,  starting with how to say my name. I  learned about myself through reading, yoga, art, writing, traveling, and meeting new people with different perspectives. All of these things helped me crack the shell and come out shining and unafraid.

 7. Is there anything you would tell your teen self if you could go back in time?

If I could go back and drop some knowledge on teen Perlita, I would say: Get involved in your community. Be a part of different scenes, even if it’s not your thing. Get good at doing a variety of things. Be open to all opportunities that come your way even if you don’t think they will lead you directly to your goals. If you show up to these situations as your true self, putting your heart into it, that will be SEEN. YOU will be seen…and you never know who might be looking!  When thinking back on how I have been able to go from one great gig/program/community to the next with so much ease, it was often thanks to something that had seemed like a coincidence– something that had come from talking about my interests with someone I’d just met, or from hearing someone mention a job or event I’d love to be a part of and going to ask them more about it. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that nothing about my life has happened out of coincidence. Both the positive and more challenging experiences have happened as a result of me seeking them out, even if I wasn’t conscious of it at the time.

soy by perla

8. Are there any other jobs, roles, or goals that you want to pursue in the future?

Two Mamacitas is a big step towards one of my dreams! When I am planning and cooking for  these events, I feel like I am living my dream already, or a very satisfying bite of it. I would love to have a mobile kitchen and classroom. I’d love to show up to different public schools and offer free cooking and nutrition classes for kids. Most schools don’t teach either of those things anymore, and I think that’s disastrous on so many levels! By night, my little food truck would function as a pop-up restaurant.  I’m dreaming up a grant proposal to help make this happen. If you hear or see of anything, please let me know!




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