ICE Alum Works with Immigrant Chefs at Flavors from Afar
Chef Kenna Copes returned to culinary school for a management diploma before pursuing nonprofit work.
Determined, strong and focused are some words that best describe ICE alum Kenna Copes (Management, ‘20). The female BIPOC chef celebrates diversity and her community through food and culture at Flavors from Afar.
From a young age, Kenna knew that she wanted to pursue a career in culinary arts; however, she never imagined that her experiences would lead her to where she is today.
Kenna had the realization she wanted to pursue a career in the culinary arts during her 9th-grade biology class. Most teens typically groan and cringe at the thought of a dissection lab. However, for Kenna, this was an unconventional, eye-opening experience. "We would dissect animals, and that’s when I knew that I really wanted to be a butcher at the time," she explains. "I enjoyed breaking down the animals and understanding all the parts." Kenna knew that she wanted to work with proteins and animals. After careful consideration, she opted for culinary school at a local college in her native city of San Diego. There, she enrolled in a Regional Occupational Program (ROP) to take classes in culinary and pastry arts to develop her true calling.
Hoping to enhance her education, Kenna then transferred to the Art Institute of California in Mission Valley, where she completed her associate degree in culinary arts. After a series of entry-level jobs, Kenna became a kitchen manager at Sharp’s corporate offices. "Running the kitchen was fine, but I wanted to cook more," she explains. After some time, she began looking for chef positions to fulfill her aspirations to get back on the line. This brought her to a sous chef position at LEGOLAND California Resort in Carlsbad. “I was one of the first four sous chefs to open up the hotel, which led me to help open up their second location on the property too,” Kenna says. Playing a critical role in the day-to-day at the restaurants, Kenna “got the full experience on how to open up a kitchen, like where it starts from equipment to taking inventory of everything,” she explains.
While Kenna enjoyed her job, her drive to keep learning about her craft didn’t stop. Kenna decided to return to the Art Institute of California, yet again, to complete her bachelor’s degree in culinary management. However, just six months into her program, the school closed its doors. Eager to complete her management education, Kenna discovered the Institute of Culinary Education. After touring the campus, meeting the instructors and learning more about the programs offered, Kenna knew it was the right fit and moved from the San Diego area to Los Angeles to enroll in Restaurant & Culinary Management.
Upon starting the program, Kenna was quickly fascinated by the culinary landscape and bounty of opportunities available in LA. “Being in [the] class and engaging with the other students that were born and raised in the area, I learned that this is where you needed to be,” Kenna exclaims. She felt as though she finally had the opportunity to explore more international cuisines that comprise LA’s melting pot.
Finally on the right track to completing her education and just two months away from graduating, the pandemic rocked the world. Though Kenna was able to continue classes virtually and finish her management diploma, she was tasked with finding a job opening amid the rolling restaurant closures and restrictions occurring nationwide. “I was still able to get my resume out there and still contact restaurants to see if they were hiring,” she explains, adding that she established and worked to maintain connections with prospective employers with the hopes of landing a job once the dust began to settle.
Fortunately, with the help of ICE's Career Services department, Kenna found an opportunity that highly intrigued her at an event and catering company called Flavors from Afar in Little Ethiopia. After several interviews with the owners, Kenna happily accepted a head chef and program instructor position with the company that promotes and celebrates culinary traditions, cultures, and stories of refugees and asylum seekers in Southern California. The business works in conjunction with the Tiyya Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting refugees, immigrants and displaced indigenous communities starting over in Orange County and Los Angeles.
Flavors from Afar includes a one-of-a-kind restaurant led by immigrants and featuring a new menu each month crafted by a spotlighted chef’s cultural history, creativity and journey. Flavors from Afar welcomes “those that come into this country trying to get on their feet, trying to get jobs and trying to adjust to the American way,” Kenna explains, pointing out that many of the chefs “have culinary backgrounds or worked as chefs and cooks in their own country.” After a series of interviews and menu pitches — if the fit is right — the restaurant offers the chef a month-long spot on the menu to sell their creations. “We are typically looking for five to seven dishes to highlight,” Kenna says. In the past, Flavors from Afar has featured diverse cuisines ranging from Egyptian to Palestinian to Somali. For next month’s menu, the team is deliberating between a Vietnamese and Guatemalan-themed menu.
Kenna applies her Restaurant & Culinary Management education in her day-to-day with skills for managing inventory, pricing and menu development. With a menu changing every month, Kenna has learned that it’s critical to maintain efficient food costs and good-standing relationships with vendors to find the best products available at affordable price points each rotation.
Another major component of the management program, Kenna strives to focus on hospitality management and maintaining strong relationships with regulars, as well as attracting new clientele by ensuring that guests are pleased with their dining experiences. When a guest's takeout container broke for example, Kenna thanked her guests for providing feedback and worked to find better packaging solutions to ensure it would not occur again.
Aside from the opportunity to exhibit and try various delicious cuisines, Kenna finds the ability to welcome immigrant chefs into the kitchen extremely rewarding. “Five percent of the proceeds go back to the chefs,” featured. However, “it’s important to understand how many of them made their way into the kitchen, especially the women. Most of the women started cooking when they were young girls because that was their job and their way not to be sold off into prostitution or other industries in their countries,” Kenna explains. “It’s interesting to hear the stories that they tell and how they ended up in the kitchen to save their lives, so they really take it seriously because that was their livelihood to have a better life."
Kenna is passionate about mentoring women that come through the kitchen. “It is harder to get to the top of the ladder [being a woman] in the kitchen, but once you show them that you do care about what they bring to the table, they really thrive on that,” she says. “It feels good to be the person there to answer their questions, keep their motivation going and even keep them inspired." She stresses the importance of figuring out what you’re good at within the industry and building your foundation upon those strengths to achieve a better future.
Kenna hopes to open up a breakfast and brunch spot one day, bringing together her knowledge and experiences to create a strong business model that can withstand unprecedented challenges in the industry, as many experienced in 2020. She is comforted by the unity that has brought communities together amid hardships to celebrate cultures and diversity by way of food, which “opens up your eyes and your palate to different things, some things you may have never known existed!” Kenna says. “Everyone’s knowledge comes together, which contributes to the flow in the kitchen, it’s like an orchestra that works so well together. Imagine the opportunities that we would miss out on if we just cooked with salt and pepper." Kenna encourages her peers to never give up and always ask every question possible to become a better chef every day.
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