RENATA SOTO: Cooking in Nashville since 1996


Dirty Page: Moroccan Tagine


photo: Andrea Behrend

photo: Andrea Behrend

Renata Soto likes to walk through the commercial kitchen of Casa Azafrán community center on her way into work. “It’s the best way to start your day,” she said of the energy, sights and smells of a space where food entrepreneurs collaborate over creamy hummus, plump empanadas and croissant-dough cinnamon rolls.

The kitchen is named Mesa Komal, meaning “table” and “community” in Spanish and Kurdish respectively for two of the many communities Casa Azafrán and Conexión Américas serves. But more than a place to help entrepreneurs put their skills to good use for business, Renata wanted it to be an entry point to bring people together who might not have convened before and to share stories.

Given that focus, you can imagine her joy on a recent workday when she found Java Hemmat, a hummus maker, scribbling Farsi on a kitchen whiteboard for a group of American entrepreneurs. "They were like seriously in a Farsi class,” she said.

Renata grew up in a Costa Rican family of cooks with her paternal great grandmother revered for her traditional tamales, black beans and rice. It’s also no surprise, though, given Renata’s work with immigrants in Nashville, that her “dirty page” dish reaches to culture beyond her own.

Not long after moving to Nashville, she joined a group of neighbors on a progressive dinner and picked up a recipe for a tagine prepared by a French native with Moroccan roots. The comforting dish brings together an easy nurturing technique with a blend of spices to stimulate the senses.

“That become our first moments of ‘Nashville is a good place,’” she said of the dinners with discussion of politics, art and food. “It’s that kind of friendship, conversation and people from very different backgrounds, but all in same neighborhood, that really planted the seeds for us to get rooted in Nashville.”

(All proceeds from the Dirty Pages exhibit go toward the work of Mesa Komal.)

Cindy Wall