Alibi V.27 No.3 • Jan 18-24, 2018 

Food Interview

Three Sisters Kitchen Builds Healthy Community

Anzia Bennett talks big plans for the kitchen and café

Three Sisters

“You’re a community hub,” I told Anzia Bennett after she talked with me all morning about Three Sisters Kitchen, her yet-to-open community kitchen project. She thought I was talking about Three Sisters, but I was talking about her. She knows everyone.

Which is not to say she’s a name-dropper or social climber—if Bennett is climbing anything, she wants to bring all of her people up with her. She believes in community with a capital C: paying it forward, giving space to the people who need it most and supporting one another without the expectation of anything in return. Community is what she’s trying to build.

Her Three Sisters Kitchen is an ambitious project to create a space for people to come together to cook, eat, test new recipes, develop new food businesses, teach and learn from each other. It is one part café, one part test kitchen, one part dining room and one part classroom. And, though many have come through with support, input and funding for Three Sisters, Bennett is now largely running the whole operation herself.

The idea for Three Sisters was born of many community meetings led by Downtown Albuquerque MainStreet Initiative, the Downtown Albuquerque Growers’ Market and Delicious New Mexico along with Downtown business owners and residents, nonprofits, farmers and healthcare providers. Between 2015 and 2017, this grassroots group decided that what downtown Albuquerque needed most was “a welcoming space that celebrates and supports local food producers year-round, promotes a healthy community, and offers meaningful opportunities to engage in the local food system,” as the Three Sisters Kitchen website says. Bennett, who was recruited to lead the effort in mid-2016, was an obvious choice for the person to head this venture: She has experience working with several Albuquerque-area nonprofits, a degree in Public Health and a reputation for seeing projects through (she worked with Agri-Cultura Network farmers to build their La Cosecha CSA program).

As she walks me through the soon-to-be under-construction space at 109 Gold Avenue SW, Bennett’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of Three Sisters is obvious—despite the dozens of times, I suspect, she’s given this same pitch to others. Her unflagging energy, no doubt, has come in handy during the long process of planning and executing the project.

At the entrance of the building will be the Local Foods Shop and Café, where people who live and work Downtown can pick up a healthy lunch that’s made largely from locally-produced ingredients. There will also be a small stand of fresh produce available to buy, where people can redeem their Fresh Rx prescription: a program of Presbyterian Healthcare Services that allows doctors to “prescribe” fresh fruits and veggies to patients suffering from nutrition-related illnesses.

The community dining room is in the middle of the space. Here, Bennett imagines hosting dinners, cookbook signings and other events, as well as renting the place out for extra income. Beyond that is the classroom: a spacious “demonstration” kitchen with a large island and space for an audience of 40 to take community cooking classes. “A number of community members have already reached out with ideas for community cooking classes they’d like to teach: food as medicine workshops, pie and pastry lessons, pasta making classes . . .” Bennett tells me. A partnership with Encuentro, a nonprofit that helps Latino immigrants build skills for employment or entrepreneurial opportunities, will offer professional development workshops for home health aides cooking for homebound patients with special dietary needs. She imagines cookbook authors stopping here on their tours to give recipe demos and book signings as well.

Behind the scenes is the test kitchen: both where food for the café will be prepared and a commercial-grade kitchen where aspiring food business entrepreneurs can test recipes on a large scale and use kitchen equipment (like a dehydrator or a tilt skillet) that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Three Sisters Kitchen is working closely with the Street Food Institute, a successful nonprofit food business incubator, to develop a food business entrepreneurial training program. It’s very similar in concept to the South Valley Economic Development Center’s Mixing Bowl, a commercial kitchen made for people who are just launching their food businesses—but, Bennett says, there’s no competition there. “We’ll be more of a funnel into the Mixing Bowl,” she says, since the Mixing Bowl can offer more space for those businesses to grow.

Perhaps because Bennett’s enthusiasm for Three Sisters is contagious, I begin brainstorming about other uses for the space: fundraiser dinners, happy hours, bake sales. And I’m not the only one—just about everyone who hears about the kitchen wants to get involved somehow. So, what are the best ways for people to help Three Sisters out?

Donations of cookbooks and lightly used kitchen equipment like aprons, dishes and cooking tools are highly appreciated—email anzia@threesisterskitchen.org to arrange pick-up or drop-off. Cash donations are, of course, also appreciated, as Bennett will need plenty more funding to buy the commercial-grade kitchen equipment that she needs. You can donate at threesisterskitchen.org/support

If you’re looking for a fun way to get involved and help out, Bennett suggests hosting a fundraiser dinner party. Cook dinner for some friends and ask them each to chip in a few dollars for the feast. You can then send in the donation—and a recipe from the dinner to go into the Three Sisters Kitchen Community Cookbook. (Contact anzia@threesisterskitchen.org for more info.)

She hopes to have a soft opening for the space sometime in the spring or early summer of this year, but acknowledges that progress has been a lot slower than she wanted. “I wanted to open last year,” she says, “but between planning, permitting and finding funds for all the kitchen equipment and staff …” she winces. It’s not an uncommon predicament for many business owners in Albuquerque, nonprofit or otherwise.

When Three Sisters Kitchen does open its doors, you can be sure there will be people lined up to see inside. One good thing about the extended planning time is that more and more people have come on board as funders or partners in the endeavor, and Bennett has gotten more input on what people want to see her do with the space. But she’s still eager to see the place up and running—on the day I visit the space, there’s flooring protection being put down in the classroom to get ready for future renovations, and Bennett is thrilled about it. “It’s so nice to finally see something happening in here,” she says. Despite all the energy she’s already given to this project, she’s only getting started.