The music moved through the vibrant space at Oakland’s Fob Kitchen at the recent Comfort Collective pop-up, abunDANCE on April 18. Though there was no dancefloor to speak of, patrons grooved in their seats as staff delivered bowls of curry with chickpeas, vegetables, and bara bread to tables. Chef Christian Washington also moved to the beat, dancing as they cooked and checked in on tables between rounds of dishes.
There’s an undeniable joy in the food, drinks, and vibe at Comfort Collective, the brainchild of co-founders Washington and Sadé Stamps. It’s part of the duo’s mission for the monthly pop-up: “to create a space for Black, brown, queer and trans people to have a ~comfortable~ work space while also providing nourishment of the body and soul to our community while honoring our heritage and ancestors with our hands through the food and libations we create,” according to an Instagram post.
Washington graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at Chez Panisse. Now they’re merging their style of Southern-inspired food with Stamps’s rum- and agave-fueled drinks into Comfort Collective. Stamps, meanwhile, is the former beverage director for Oakland’s Sobre Mesa. Together she and Washington formed a collective that not only brings their industry experience together but also forms a like-minded community space for all to gather “as a remedy and an offering of sorts,” Stamps says.
“We just really wanted to create comfortable spaces; and not only for us, as the founders of the Comfort Collective, but also for all of the hands that are involved in making the Comfort Collective what it is,” Stamps says. This means ensuring everything is done with intent, she explains, from selecting produce from farms they trust, like Brown Girl Farms, to taking care of their crew and serving guests. “I want to create in joy, Christian wants to create in joy, we want the people who come and help us service our guests, we want them to co-create with us in joy,” Stamps says. “And a lot of it goes really, really deep into Black joy and that joy that we experience. We just want that joy to travel.”
Both Washington and Stamps credit chef Sarah Kirnon of Miss Ollie’s, the much-loved Oakland Afro-Caribbean restaurant that closed earlier this year, for influencing their ways of cooking and making drinks. Stamps says Kirnon helped develop her palate and love of rum and agave spirits, which heavily figure into the Comfort Collective drink menu. Washington says Kirnon deepened their love and appreciation for renowned chef Edna Lewis. “Honestly just the holistic diaspora view that I have of cooking and writing menus, including the Caribbean and North Africa and West Africa and the American South and even Central America, all comes from the mentor relationship I had with Sarah where she’s teaching me how to do this and that and that also reflects in a lot of my menus,” Washington says.
The food at Comfort Collective isn’t static; you may see a few dishes return here and there, but Washington and Stamps aim to go “really deep on a small idea” at each pop-up, Stamps says. The pop-up events are announced on social media, with tickets to each event sold in advance or at the door; pricing typically includes a multi-course dinner and a cocktail, with more drinks available for purchase. A recent night was dedicated to Edna Lewis and featured a multi-course dinner including a pan-fried eels and scallops dish from Lewis, oyster mushroom ragu over polenta with collard greens and a poached egg, as well as seafood gumbo and “granny’s sewing tin” — shortbread cookies and ginger snaps served inside a tin. (You know the one.) Other pop-ups have shown off other sides of Washington’s skills, such as a jerk chicken served with allspice yogurt and an herb salad; a pork-stuffed patty; shrimp in escovitch; and skillet corn cakes with harissa butter.
Stamps’s drink menu, made to pair with Washington’s food, incorporates their collective ideas for the night’s offerings. Stamps often leans on rum, such as with the Hoochie Coochie Mane, which also includes cherimoya, pineapple, Campari, and lime. Other drinks incorporate agave, such as the mezcal-infused Spice Gworl, made with mezcal, tequila blanco, guajillo, lime, and salt. Additional drinks are just as inventive, such as the Saweetea, which mixes vodka, honeybush tea, sweet potato pot liquor, and lemon milk wash. Washington credits the creative and constantly shifting menu as a result of being able to run this project on their own. “There’s no one really telling us what to do, so we have to do it; but at the same time, we can do whatever we want because no one’s telling us what to do,” Washington says.
Chef and author Cal Peternell met Washington during their overlapping time at Chez Panisse, and worked together at Peternell’s now-shuttered restaurant, the Lede. “Their food feels very rooted in an American tradition of cooking but also there’s some surprises in there,” Peternell says. “I know they’re always trying to push the boundaries out and innovate a little bit, but that word comfort has to apply.”
For Kirnon, watching Washington and Stamps run Comfort Collective has her feeling like a “proud parent.” Kirnon honors what the collective is doing to preserve food from the African diaspora and form a safe space. “As someone who is Black and queer ... it’s nice to walk into a space that is honoring that,” Kirnon says. “To walk into a room that they have curated and everyone is welcome, but to see that it’s a safe space for queer, trans, Black and brown folks, is a really beautiful thing to me.”