A new Oakland restaurant will celebrate Black women and heritage cuisine

Lala Harrison’s Roux40 promises beloved Black American dishes with a farm-to-table sensibility.

Roux40’s jambalaya with head-on shrimp and lobster. Credit: Roux40

A restaurant celebrating Black heritage cuisine and run entirely by Black women and women of color will open in the Temescal district this fall.

Called Roux40, the restaurant is a project of Bay Area native Christina “Lala” Harrison and will be in the former Hog’s Apothecary space (which was briefly Magpie) at 375 40th St. Harrison has an ambitious vision for her restaurant; she wants it to be much more than a just a place to eat.

“This restaurant is me literally living my dream and a product of all my hard work,” the 35-year-old chef said. “I really want to be able to provide a space for women to be leaders, whether they be queer women or young women or women of color.”

At Roux40, Harrison intends to introduce diners to more nuanced versions of dishes they might already know. Many people think of Cajun or soul food as being representative of the entirety of Black cuisine, Harrison said. She credits the popular Netflix series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” by food writer Stephen Satterfield, as helping her better define the food she wants to make.

“Through this restaurant, I hope to be telling my story as a Black American,” Harrison said, adding that Roux40’s menu is much larger than fried chicken and mac and cheese, though those dishes will be included.

For example, one of her favorite dishes is her own take on red beans and rice — a farro risotto with red beans, sweet potato gremolata and charred scallion vinaigrette. “People are blown away by it and think there’s meat in it but there isn’t,” Harrison said of diners who tried it during tastings. “I want you to get the flavors of a traditional dish like that in a different package.”

Harrison’s take on the classic dish of red beans and rice is a farro risotto with red beans, sweet potato gremolata and charred scallion vinaigrette. Credit: Roux40

On Sunday evenings, she intends to offer a supper menu intended to evoke dishes that many Black families might recognize as a post-church meal, but with a farm-to-table sensibility. A preview menu for Roux40 also has dishes like a vegan gumbo, with collard greens, sweet potatoes and chick peas. There’s also a jambalaya with head-on shrimp and lobster, and a “Greens & Beans” with black-eyed peas, greens, shallots, sweet peppers and a sherry-bacon vinaigrette.

Much of the produce used at Roux40 will come from Brown Girl Farms in Hayward and local urban farmers that are owned by people of color, and its wine and beer list will be sourced from Black-owned wineries and breweries.

Noting that hog’s head cheese — an economical way to use every part of a pig — was a staple in many Southern Black households, Harrison said that she eventually plans to include it on a charcuterie plate. “My grandma used to put it on crackers, and I thought ‘eww gross,’ but there’s so much history behind it,” she said.

Harrison grew up in Richmond and Berkeley, the daughter of a single mother, Yvette Radford, who is “this amazing woman, like superwoman,” Harrison said. Now a vice president in charge of external and community affairs for Kaiser Permanente, Radford worked for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and other local politicians. Harrison said her mother is this “amazing role model, who has been so inspiring to me, still to this day.”

Roux40 founder Lala Harrison mulls the plans for her upcoming Temescal restaurant. Credit: Roux40

The one thing she didn’t get from her mother was her interest in food. That came from Patricia Curtan, a one-time sous chef at Chez Panisse. Curtan, the longtime illustrator for Chez Panisse’s menus and Alice Waters’ books, was the mother of Harrison’s best friend from childhood.

“She would always make the freshest food, much of it from her own garden, and handmade pasta” Harrison said. “Even though I wasn’t so invested in food then, it definitely caught my eye.”

It wasn’t until a friend started taking culinary classes at Laney College that Harrison felt drawn to do the same. “It just triggered something, immediately from my first day, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life,’” she said, noting that she enjoyed “even the grunt work.”

In her early days in restaurant kitchens, she said that she often had to prove herself as a woman of color working among the mostly male chefs, experiencing discrimination and disrespect in the process.

At some point she answered a Craigslist ad for an as-then-unnamed Uptown restaurant. The job was at iconic Oakland spot Flora, cooking under chef Rico Rivera, who is now chef/owner of Oakland’s Almond & Oak. She stayed for nearly seven years, working her way from garde manger (cold dishes) to sous chef. “Rico really took me under his wing and invested in me as a person and as a chef,” Harrison said. “He’s had a huge influence on every decision I make.”

It was also at Flora that she worked on an all-female line of chefs for the first time. She still recalls it fondly, saying “it was like magic, like butter.”

From Flora, she went to Youth UpRising, and then opened her own catering business, JusLa Eats. When the pandemic began, JusLa partnered with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, providing hundreds of meals for those in need. Eventually, Harrison started JusLa doing pop-ups, refining her vision, and honing her ideas for what would become Roux40. A GoFundMe has been helping her raise funds for the business (she welcomes donations but does not want any investors, she said).

When Roux40 opens — Harrison’s target date is October — Harrison hopes to prioritize the hiring of young people of color who have an interest in hospitality. She worked closely with many folks like this at Youth UpRising, an organization in East Oakland that provides opportunities for young, at-risk residents.

There is a lack of people of color in leading roles at restaurant kitchens, Harrison said, an issue that she has experienced first-hand. With Roux40, she hopes to change that by offering members of historically underrepresented groups a new path to success.

“Some are able to learn by experience, but they don’t always get the opportunity if they don’t have the experience,” she said. “I want more of these young people to have the opportunities that I had that brought me to where I am now.”

When it opens, Roux40 will be at 375 40th St. (near Opal Street), Oakland. Watch Roux40 on Instagram for the latest news on openings and pop-ups.