Burdell, chef Geoff Davis’s upcoming Oakland restaurant, is a soul food restaurant — not a Southern restaurant, he points out. Named after Davis’s grandmother, the restaurant draws on Davis’s family history and the Great Migration to create dishes borne out of his experiences with food, as well as the time he’s spent in Michelin star restaurants. “It’s the soul food that I grew up eating, that my parents grew up eating, but it’s through this context of the bounty of produce that we have in California, and really connecting the food back to vegetables and farming, which I think has been lost,” Davis says.
Davis worked in some of the Bay Area’s best restaurants, including Cyrus in Healdsburg, San Francisco’s Aqua, True Laurel, and Penny Roma. He says Black food is largely viewed as “just fried chicken and biscuits,” dishes associated with the convenience food of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Davis wants to change that and challenge the notion that California cuisine is linked to European rules and cooking techniques. “There’s going to be a lot of techniques that I’ve picked up over the years working in a lot of European-focused restaurants, but the food is always going to be based on memory and nostalgia and research of what my family used to cook,” Davis says.
To explain the restaurant Davis shares a deeply personal story: in the early 1920s, he estimates, his great-grandmother trekked from North Carolina to New Jersey with her young infant. The child died along the way and, as Davis says, “she literally had to go into the woods and have a little ceremony by herself, and then keep walking.” She started a new life and raised a family, which included Davis’s grandmother and restaurant namesake Burdell Demby. “Just that level of determination to get to where my great-grandmother needed to go is something that informs the drive to get Burdell into a permanent home,” he says.
Given Oakland’s diversity and history as a migration hub for Black people in the 1930s and 1940s, he says the town is a perfect spot to forge a new interpretation of Black food, weaving in Vietnamese, Mexican, and Filipino ingredients. “Kind of in the same way Creole food got made by forcing all these people together, [with] respect for their techniques and ingredients — they all become one food that’s no longer fusion anymore,” he says.
It’s taken time for Davis to arrive at this point in his career, assured in cooking this style of food. Working in fine dining, Davis says he often felt out of place as the only person of color in the building. As he progressed, he became more confident in his cooking. “Previously, I wanted to be taken seriously; I didn’t want to be ‘fried chicken guy,’” Davis says. “But as time went on, I felt like chefs in the Bay Area tend to open a place that honors their family history and the dishes that they grew up with — why did I feel a block about doing that? So I took a second and tried to think about the why, and I was like, I have to tell the story. This is the food that I’m really excited and passionate about.”
Although Davis says he found a location for Burdell and is gathering investment, for now he’s holding pop-ups around Oakland. He previously did a run at Tribune and through the end of July is cooking at Sequoia Diner on Sundays, with upcoming events at Bay Grape and Tierra Vegetables Farm. At these pop-ups diners can taste what Davis hopes to share at Burdell: a prix fixe menu that changes by the week. The first course is an array of three snacks, such as oysters from Washington served with lemon citronette, along with celery and verjus shaved ice.
As you move deeper into the menu, the connection to food history becomes more apparent: a plate of cherries with white cheddar and thinly shaved Lady Edison country ham, made in North Carolina mimicking the old traditions of aging the meat in the late 1800s, Davis says. Hoppin’ John, meanwhile, is well known but Davis takes it back to its origins. A dish made of Sea Island red peas cooked with pork and rice, it was sold as a street food in the early 1800s by a slave named John with a damaged leg who would “hop and yell into the streets,” Davis says. The dish has since evolved to be made with black-eyed peas, which are easier to grow and less susceptible to disease. At Burdell, it gets a California update using Dirty Girl Produce gusanito beans cooked with shishito peppers, celery, onion, and trimmed ham fat and skin; then it’s long-cooked with ginger, white pepper, and cayenne pepper before being mixed with cooked Carolina Gold rice from Anson Mills and chard, before being tossed with lemon, scallions, and parsley.
Another dish is more personal to Davis’s family history. Davis’s grandfather on his father’s side would hunt rabbits with his own father in the 1930s; the chef serves a rabbit dish relying on memories of his grandfather’s hunting stories and the food made from what they caught. Today, that translates into a smothered Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit that’s fried and then glazed in a gravy made with offal and rabbit bones, plus rabbit stock, Dirty Girl Produce spring onions, white pepper, Worcestershire, and apple cider vinegar.
“I think that Burdell is something that hopefully will change a lot of people’s minds about what is Black food, what is possible with Black food,” Davis says. Rather than Black food culture being boiled down and reduced to a handful of dishes, instead Davis hopes to rediscover himself — as he continues his food research, reading, and talking to his mother and great-aunt about their experiences, such as foraging dandelions on the side of the road for dinner as children. “There’s so much diversity and range in the cuisine that hasn’t really been shown off,” he says.