Siska is the owner, chef, and dishwasher of ChiliCali, an Indonesian-inspired pop-up restaurant & catering company. She’s also launching a line of cooking sauces.
Describe your journey to where you are now.
For about a decade, I have been wanting to sell my Indonesian cooking sauces to the public. I started giving them to friends and family during Christmas, at Thanksgiving dinners, potlucks, BBQs… basically any opportunity I had. I learned a lot during this period. My friend reported that one of my jars exploded on her clothes when she opened a jar. I felt horrible, but thanks to her, I learned about air pressure and how to seal jars more effectively. We’ve had no reported sauce explosion since then. Thanks, Janelle!
A few years back, a fellow chef friend introduced me to Feastly. I started hosting pop-up dinners on the platform, serving dishes based on my sauces. I feel lucky that I can ask my diners for their honest opinions while I tweak my sauces along the way. Food companies would pay a lot of money to get this kind of candid market research.
When did you first start cooking?
My mother was a busy catering chef. It was actually a family business. My aunts and cousins were always in the kitchen helping out. My mother put me to work when I was old enough to use a mortar and pestle, and I loved every bit of it. She taught me about Indonesian flavors, traditional cooking techniques, and how to be a great host. She has a very warm personality and she gives everything in her heart when she cooks her food.
I loved my mother’s kitchen but I didn’t stay home forever. When I was 18, I moved to Beijing, China to try to make it on my own. Even though I had to put aside professional cooking while I was in school, my passion for food didn’t die. As I was studying Mandarin, I was hosting dinner parties in my dorm and later in my apartment for my friends to eat my own Indonesian food. I moved to San Francisco 10 years ago to pursue my master’s in media studies. As a starving student, the struggle was real. Between classes, at nights, whenever I could manage, I worked restaurant jobs for cash. After graduation, I managed to find corporate jobs that definitely paid the bills and taught me about business. But my heart was still in the kitchen.
When I started hosting with Feastly a few years ago I would go to my desk job in the morning and cook in the evening. It was a grueling two years. I barely slept, let alone had a social life. I finally made a leap of faith to focus solely on my food business. Since then, I have never felt more liberated.
Who inspired you in the kitchen?
Naturally, the first person was my mother. She taught me a lot about how to build a bond with the people you’re feeding. But I’ve also largely been inspired by my travels. Ever since I got my first paycheck in my early 20’s, most of my money has gone to plane tickets bound for western and eastern Europe, Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. My experiences eating across borders have informed how and what I cook. I believe people have more similarities than differences. Exploring this concept is exciting for me.
You’ve chosen to sell sauces. Why?
There are four sauces that are essential in every Indonesian kitchen and the foundation for all our recipes – turmeric base, galangal base, kukui nuts & shallot base, and red chili base. Collectively, we call them “bumbu dasar,” which means base spices. You have to have at least three of these sauces if you want to call yourself an Indonesian chef – these flavors can be mixed together or used individually. We usually make batches of these and freeze them in Ziploc bags. They save so much time prepping when cooking.
Beyond making cooking easier, I’m also eager to bring Indonesian flavors into the mainstream. In the entire Bay Area, there are less than five Indonesian restaurants. As an immigrant, I want my culture and food to be recognized as unique. We are part of the United States, and we’re not going anywhere. My sauces are the extension of my efforts to educate diners about Indonesia. I will consider these efforts successful when I stop hearing people use the term “exotic” to describe Indonesian flavors.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a woman entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?
Entrepreneurship was once considered a man’s domain. Although times have changed, and there are definitely more female business owners now than in the ’50s, most of us continue to face most of the same challenges. I don’t have children, but I know female business owners out there who constantly face the challenge of balancing their work and family lives. We call them “mompreneurs.” They are basically wonder women. I recently told a female friend about my dream project. She then suggested that I have a baby. I wonder if she was implying that since I was searching for something meaningful, a baby might better occupy my time?
I used to worry about coming off too aggressive and competitive. In the business world, it’s okay for men to have these qualities, but women get called names just for speaking up. If I need to speak up, I will speak up. If I need to be critical, I will be critical. In general, I always strive to treat everyone with kindness and respect.
If you read statistics and talk to female founders, the biggest challenge is raising capital. Women have the same success rate or even more when raising funds using online platforms such as Indiegogo or Kickstarter. However, offline is a different story. The simple fact is, the majority of the decision makers at venture capital funds are male. This is why I am bootstrapping my own company – it will take longer to launch my business, but I will have full control of the process. I plan on using Kickstarter this April to fund ChiliCali sauces.
You mentioned that you liked working with women. Can you elaborate?
Yes. I just feel safer and understood. I think it’s wise for female business owners to look for the right support network. I gravitate toward these female-oriented businesses to help me get where I want to be.
Are there any advantages to being a female chef/business owner that you can share?
One of women’s greatest strengths is their emotional intelligence. A director at my previous corporate job told me I was “emotional” as if it was a bad thing. I believe that the ability to understand our own emotions and the emotions of others can help guide decision-making.
How does food empower you and how do you hope to extend this through your company?
I was born as an only child into a patriarchal society. Throughout my entire life, I have had to fight for equality. The kitchen has always been my safe place.In Indonesia, women run the kitchen. I am talking about the mothership kitchen, the first kitchen that everyone eats from, the home kitchen of single mothers; women who survived domestic abuse; women who hustled because their husbands were too sick to provide; my grandmother; my aunties; and my cousins — that kitchen is like group therapy. This is what I have been bringing to my pop-ups. I want the experience to be like home — intimate, safe, and nurturing. It feels very empowering to provide this experience for others.