Bouncy hush puppies, tender chicken and dumplings under a blanket of crisp spring vegetables, and a spicy Limpin’ Susan (often called “the wife of Hoppin’ John,” featuring plump shrimp perched atop okra and rice in a dried shrimp, tomato gravy). These were some of the exquisitely prepared dishes created by Geoff Davis at a recent private dinner in Oakland. The gathering was a run-up to the opening of Davis’s highly anticipated new restaurant, Burdell on Telegraph Avenue, slated to open this summer.
Over the past few months, Davis has hosted a series of 30 pop-up dinners at restaurants such Sequoia and other local spots, to raise both awareness and support for his new venture. Now he is focused on creating a new interior design for the restaurant he has been dreaming about for a decade. Its home will be the former beloved Aunt Mary’s Café, which closed in 2022 after 14 years in the Temescal district.
After a long career cooking at some of the Bay Area’s top fine-dining restaurants — including Penny Roma, True Laurel, Cyrus, Haven, The Dock, and Aqua —Davis is more than ready to create his own vision. His grandparents provide the inspiration. Burdell is named after his maternal grandmother, Burdell Demby. And the peachy pink on his menus and website was a favorite color of his paternal grandmother, Costella Davis.
The chef often uses the word “nostalgia” in describing his vision, but whose exactly does he mean?
“Nostalgia for shared experiences is important,” he said, “but of course not everyone had the same memories. The accent is on my grandmothers’ cooking as it expresses earnestness, honesty, and simplicity. A lot has been forgotten and erased. ‘Soul Food’ is often seen through a narrow range as unhealthy, but that’s not my experience, except perhaps for a few celebratory dishes. Really, daily dishes often focused on vegetables, legumes, cabbage, collards with a little meat.”
Davis centers his practice in the garden. When doing his pop-ups, Davis visited three or four farmers’ markets a week to select the best produce from a variety of purveyors with whom he has enjoyed a relationship for the last decade. His favorites include the Tuesday market in South Berkeley, Marin’s Thursday market, Old Oakland‘s Friday market, and the San Francisco Ferry Building’s Saturday market. He plans on continuing to pay it forward by supporting the local community of farmers when he opens his restaurant.
The hosts of the recent private dinner, Romi and Ben Hall, had attended two of Chef Davis’ pop-up dinners last year: themed Summer and Winter, they were each reflective of the season. These were such memorable meals, that the menu from Summer is framed on the Hall’s kitchen wall. They are not alone in their devotion to Davis’ cooking. The chef said one couple had attended all 30 of his pop-up dinners. And, he added, he was proud that they never had the same dish twice.
The restaurant’s interior will feature new fixtures, furniture, and flooring, as well as a new — as yet to be divulged — color scheme to replace the previous olive-green walls. But Davis said that while he’s been overseeing the remodel he missed cooking, which was one reason to do the private dinners.
Davis grew up in Modesto, where both sets of grandparents eventually also resettled, “when they were done shoveling snow in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” He fondly remembers his grandmother Burdell’s lemon meringue pie, made with Meyer lemons and zest in the curd, and how, after she got older and dealt with Parkinson’s, she was unable to cook herself but was happy to instruct and provide feedback, for example, on the apple pie he made as an early teenager. “She passed down a certain tradition that I want to honor.”
Davis attended The Culinary Institute of America in New York, but, as he wrote in a 2020 article on Resy, “I was the only Black person in my culinary school class. … During most of my career working in Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bay Area, as a young cook, I was the only Black person in the kitchen. Often, I was the only person of color working at the restaurant at all.”
He describes how, even though he is now proud to cook his family’s recipes, this is a new perspective. “I didn’t always feel comfortable cooking from my memories,” he said “Often, I was embarrassed by it. Black food doesn’t have the same respect or need for seriousness and professionalism as foods from other cultures. Eurocentricity drives dining in this country.” By contrast, he now imagines “a restaurant where I can honor my family’s recipes and traditions, while nourishing people not only with food but with comfort and belonging.”
After the recent dinner, the chef chatted with the group about his vision for Burdell.
“This food really matters, and I want the message to be clear: it’s a distilled version of grandmother food. It’s not just for certain people, it’s for everybody,” he said. “It’s the original American food…I want an inclusive space where everyone can come and learn,” he added. “It is important to honor these recipes and Oakland provides a great platform. I want to tell a different story, an alternative narrative to Cal-French, Cal-Italian, even Cal-Japanese restaurants that are popular now. And it’s the perfect use of California produce.”
Davis clarified what he meant by Black Food. “Black Food is not necessarily Southern food. My family has not lived in the South for three generations, so I have no direct ties. They grew up in Philadelphia and New Jersey and my experience comes from what colored their experiences in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Black food doesn’t always equal Southern food, although it might have influences. I grew up in Modesto since the age of three, a big agricultural area in a family that was excited about the produce, growers, ranchers, and fishermen.”
Davis is imbuing Burdell, which will seat 50, with a lot of intentionality. His serving dishes, which he brought to the recent private dinner, will be the classic Corelle patterns that his grandmothers (and so many other people’s) used daily. He has been carefully collecting these mainstays of the 70s and 80s, including traditional patterns such as Spring Blossom, Woodland Brown, and Butterfly Gold And it’s an approach that might resonate: a last treat after dessert, Davis brought out a dish of strawberry bonbon candies, to which nearly everyone at the table exclaimed, “My grandmother had those too!”