• Stefani Renee

Beyond the Plate to Find the Story

A conversation with Pei-Ru Ko, Real Food Real Stories

Photography: Angeles Rios

A few months back I had an opportunity to interview Pei-Ru Ko who is the founder of San Francisco-based Real Food Real Stories (RFRS). The mission of RFRS is to “humanize the food system for a connected, sustainable, and just tomorrow.” They use the art of storytelling and story facilitation to provide brave spaces for food makers to share their stories and allow us, the eaters, a glimpse of the passion, fortitude, tenacity and love it takes to run a food business.

Photography: Kristen Murakoshi

After meeting with Pei-Ru, I began thinking more about the word nourishment and how it goes beyond what’s on our plates. Webster’s Dictionary defines nourishment as “something that promotes growth, supports, or sustains with nutriment.” Reflecting on how graciously Pei-Ru shared her life’s journey and how she fell in love with storytelling as a powerful medium to build bridges, I began to see how we’re not only nourished by the food we eat but we are nourished by the relationships and connections we make. with me and inspired me to keep seeking nourishment through food and story.

Nourishment: Something that promotes growth, supports, or sustains with nutriment. Webster’s Dictionary

Please check out the amazing events and Curious Eater podcast that RFRS hosts and experience “authentic sharing, generous listening, and a connection to our shared humanity.”

Read my inspiring interview with Pei-Ru below to learn about her food journey, the Bay Area eateries she likes to frequent, one of her most memorable eating experiences, and leads us to the real story behind the food, the people.

Photography: Julia Zave



Founder, Real Food Real Stories

How did your food journey begin?

It's really two tracks of my life that kind of happened and started in different phases. I grew up in Taiwan going to the wet market and buying directly from the same farmer that we'd known for years, was just the norm. Fresh, handmade stuff that [came] directly from the farm. Then when I was 13, I came to the States for education and I was on my own. Boarding school became my reality and my food choice became whatever they served in the dining hall. There's really not much else for many years. Middle school, high school, and college were all like that. In many ways, I became a lot more disconnected from thinking about where my food [came] from. Food wasn’t something that I [had] a choice on. Food was a big part of growing up, but then I kind of lost touch with it.

How did your pursuit of storytelling start?

In college, I started getting really interested in storytelling. I went to a small liberal arts college and like many schools, they talked a lot about diversity, or at least they [tried], but I felt like on campus we didn't interact with each other at that depth. When I came to the States for school, I made a very conscious choice that I did not want to only hang out with Asian kids because if I [wanted to do] that, I'll just stay in Taiwan. I wanted to meet America.

In many ways, on paper [there was] diversity on campus [ but] when we self-segregate or when we stay in superficial conversation with each other, there's not really much point of being together if we're not learning from each other and growing together [on] what it means to be a community or bigger society together. So I think that's a little bit of a route [to story telling].

I just thought the grass [would be] greener on the other side so I was going to transfer to a different school thinking somewhere else might do it better. I was grabbing tea with an administrator at my school, sharing with him my plans and he asked me, "Do you feel like there are stories?" and I said, “Yeah, I believe so.” Somehow I had this fundamental belief that everyone has a story and I can kind of see it, I can guess it. He said, “Then could I challenge you that before you just take off, to create a time and a place where it's appropriate for people to come together and share authentically, honestly.” So I started a club on campus. It was called, Let Me Tell You A Story. Every week we worked with a student, faculty or staff helping them to prepare a story and on Sunday night, we would come together, sit by our fireplace and hear the story and try our best to also cultivate a space around listening and openness. Also, we always baked the storyteller's favorite cookie. That became the most powerful thing that I was able to do for the next three years at that college.

How does the story of RFRS begin?

I developed an autoimmune condition. I wanted to learn a little bit more about food because if not heal me, at least I can participate in feeding myself to help myself feel better or at least comfort myself. I thought when I get better I'll go back to doing the storytelling work. In the meantime, I started thinking I wanted to meet the people behind the food that I [ate], the source that I want to trust. I started to go into a lot of farmer's markets, tried to get into commercial kitchens, tried to ask questions, and befriend the local food makers and producers. I found the sustainable food world being such a positive and inspiring place because it's a tough business and [people] only get into it because they have some higher mission of wanting to bring social justice into their community and want to provide healthier food options at different price points. These were the greatest folks that I got to be around and they would contribute a ton to my healing. It wasn't just what I ate, it's the relationship, the positivity, the camaraderie.

I also noticed many of them didn't know how to tell their stories, didn't believe they had a story, didn't believe [their story] mattered. Also, as an eater who was trying to learn and connect with where my food comes from, it took me a lot of effort to get to them too. There [was] a disconnect. There are producers that feel lonely, unheard, or unsupported and don't know how to tell their stories; then there are eaters who want to know more but don't know how to find them. That's kind of where Real Food Real Stories came about. It was a way to give back to the community that helped me heal, but also support other eaters who want to begin their more conscious [food] journey and bring that storytelling and people element back to food.

How long have you been operating RFRS?

Technically four years as a nonprofit, closer to five when we started as an experiment.

When I was doing research and checking out the website, I thought, “ Why haven't I heard of this before now? This is amazing!

Yeah, and the thing is we really have only grown by word of mouth, people bringing other people. That's how we've been able to grow.

You brought up several themes from the work you've done in the past and that you're currently doing. I think the theme that is resonating with me the most and is so important, is that maintaining relationship-centered spaces and building relationships is key. How we build relationships in life, in the world is important.

Yeah, we need each other. You know, I have stories of eaters, listeners who hear something so inspiring they quit their job and they work in food. On the other hand, I have a farmer who says "Some days I just look at my pigs and does anybody even care that I'm sacrificing better income and time with my family to raise these animals as humanely as possible? Does anyone even care?”

They [food producers] don't have time to interact with the end-user of what they dedicate their heart in. For them to be heard completely—not just give the shiny farmer's market [speech] and be super happy—to be able to share honestly of the trials and tribulations and the challenges is so cathartic for so many people and supportive. We need each other. We cannot live in our silos and I think that could be healthy.

All these people that I've gotten to work with. It's really the most joyous work and privilege to be trusted to support people in telling their stories. I never cease to feel inspired by all the folks I work with.

Why do you think food brings people together?

It's a common denominator that's enjoyable and we can do together. I also think smell is such a memory trigger that when you have a good experience and you have a food that went along with it, it's just lodged in your memory. It's a really really big deal as a [food]producer or a chef to create something that someone else put inside their body.

It's such an intimate thing.

It's crazy. It's not like a piece of clothing. It's not an app. Like they [eaters] literally put it [food] inside their body and that's powerful. I don't know, that's my hunch of why food brings people together.

What are your inspirations?

All these people that I've gotten to work with. It's really the most joyous work and privilege to be trusted to support people in telling their stories. I never cease to feel inspired by all the folks I work with.

What are your 5 go-to places to frequent in the Bay Area and why?

I go for the people always...

  • Homage,Chef David Kurtz. They feature a farm a month, [the farm is] a central feature on the menu.

  • Nyum Bai, Chef Nite Yun. Incredible Cambodian food. Like I go because hopefully they're there and I can say hello.

  • Kin Khao & Nari, Chef Pim Techamuanvivit. Incredible Thai food and she's non-apologetic. She makes food how she grew up eating it. That's what makes it so special. And I like being able to get a hug from her when I go.

  • CUESA's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I have many of my Saturday breakfast at the farmers market.

What's your most memorable eating experience?

Aaah so many…

Ok, what's the first immediate thing that came into your mind?

I thought about one of our storytellers, Kristyn Leach. She runs the NAMU Farm and hosts this annual, what's called Chuseok a Korean harvest ceremony. It's usually along with autumn harvest time. It's a time to give back to the land, bring the community back together and there's hundreds of us that show up on her farm. There's a drumming circle, there's this incredible potluck. Every other person creates some kind of radical kimchi from something on the farm. Just the community and the giving, sharing Korean wine and pouring it on the land and giving prayers. That’s such an incredible way to be with the land and be with the community.