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This Oakland Chef is Rewriting What American Food is

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Geoff Davis is challenging our idea of what we think American Food is with his new restaurant Burdell; featuring modern soul food. Davis has been in the industry for over 15 years and has worked for many high-end restaurants such as Aqua, Fifth Floor, Cyrus in Healdsburg, and was the opening chef at Penny Roma and True Laurel.

Maybe it’s just me, but all of the above sounds like just any typical Bay Area restaurant opening. What Davis is doing is far from typical. This is a story of someone leaning in and showing us what it means to be your authentic self every day. Geoff Davis is a high-end chef, family historian, and maybe surprisingly has recently become a new vintage Pyrex collector. The story of his new restaurant and point of view on food will inspire you.

Chef Davis of Burdell

Chef Geoff Davis of Burdell, a modern soul food restaurant serving elevated family recipes – portrait by Nicholas Muncy and splash image by Victor Ta

The origin of Burdell was something Davis had thought about doing for a long time. He first thought he’d open up a wine bar due to having a history of working within that industry. When that concept didn’t seem to get any traction, he shifted to building out a restaurant (something he’d wanted to do but thought it would come much later).
Since Davis’ dishes are inspired by soul food recipes from his family, he chose to name the restaurant after his Grandmother, Burdell.

Davis is reimagining what we think of when we hear “American Food”

I took a mini poll with some of my community asking what they think of when they think of American Food. Most folks said “hamburgers, frozen foods, grease, sugar, and empty calories, Doritos….” you get the point… all things that wouldn’t surprise us but also make us pretty sad if we really sit and think about it.

“We need to rewrite what American food is,” says Davis.

Burdell Squash dish by Chef Geoff Davis – photo by Susan Quan

What sets Davis and Burdell apart is that he’s looking to bring in modern food that has a true history and soul behind the flavors and the recipes. Specifically, Davis hopes that his food will remind us that American Food isn’t burgers and junk food, true American food is rooted in our own family history and culture. Rooted (metaphorically and literally) in farm culture and the history of our ancestors.

“Burdell is a modern soul food restaurant serving nostalgic, California cuisine. Not really Southern food. I want to focus on the food of Black migration to cities. Oakland being one of those cities, it’s a natural fit. I want to honor that history and to show off the range of the cuisine. Black food is about vegetables and farming,” says Davis in an interview with The Chronicle

Davis is telling a story that needs to be told. It’s a story that I believe can only be told through food. Each dish at Burdell comes directly from Davis’ family history. Black American recipes that his family has been collecting for him over time. Davis’s Great Aunt (sister to restaurant namesake, Burdell), now in her 90s, is technologically savvy enough to have sent him old pictures and old scrapbook stuff with recipes and more stories of his family. His family is helping him “kick the can down the road,” as Davis put it, supporting this new endeavor in a heartwarming way.

Chef Geoff Davis reimagines Beans and Rice using fresh farmer's market ingredients for this Burdell dish

Chef Geoff Davis reimagines Beans and Rice using fresh farmer’s market ingredients for this Burdell dish – photo by Susan Quan

Using his family recipes as a start, Davis goes to 4-5 farmer’s markets a week to gather supplies directly from local farmers. My mouth dropped open when he told me how much footwork goes into just gathering items for an upcoming pop-up. Every single ingredient featured in each of the dishes at Burdell is from market ingredients. This all ties back into Davis’ wish to tell a larger story. The history of food within America and California comes right back to the farmer.

Combining what he gets from the markets with his treasured family recipes, Davis will then build a menu off of that. Davis then elevates each dish using the skills he’s perfected while working in those high-end restaurants for more than 15 years. The result is dishes with heart that are maybe too pretty to eat and flavors that take you back in time. The dishes honor our local farmers, they honor Davis’ family and they honor Black American cuisine.

Burdell oyster dish using local ingredients hand-selected by Chef Davis for his new Oakland restaurant

Burdell oyster dish using local ingredients hand-selected by Chef Davis for his new Oakland restaurant – photo by Susan Quan

There’s a lot inside Davis’ food and Burdell. His food is like a rich painting with layers upon layers of intentional strokes – it’s the people, farmers, his story, Black history, and the recipe likely scribbled down decades ago – all in one bite. His recent in-depth essay with Resy made me honestly tear up. I wholeheartedly believe that Davis is going to change the food industry. He speaks from the heart, from experience, and with a sincerity that helps everyone connect with him and his food on a whole other level.

Davis asks us: Can homegrown food be just as important as other cuisine?

“I can say now that I’m proud to cook my family’s recipes. I’m even more excited about the idea of sharing it with people. But it wasn’t always that easy.  There was a fear of the stigma of a cartoon Black person eating fried chicken and watermelon, being typecast or pigeonholed as “that guy” — rather than a talented chef cooking from my childhood memories. If I grew up in France, maybe my outlook would be different.

I didn’t always feel comfortable cooking from my memories. 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.  A nice dinner out in the Bay Area usually includes high-handed French technique or rustic Italian sensibilities. These are the kind of restaurants I’ve worked in for over 15 years.

Do I just give up and cook ‘Californian’ cuisine? Do I shift the focus away from the Blackness of my cooking? Can our homegrown food be just as important as the imported flavors and techniques from Japan? Italy? France? Can Black food be served in a fully-funded, beautiful restaurant space, with great service and with great ingredients and beverages? Will it be celebrated nationally? What compromises will it take to achieve this? I don’t have the answers, yet. But I believe that true freedom exists in ownership,” says Davis to Resy.

Davis’ outlook on the importance of weaving his own story into his food is inspiring to say the least. He’s not sure if he’ll ever be the next Michelin star restaurant. What he wants to focus on is the food and continuing to set a really high bar for himself as he’s always done. I’m such a super-fan of his now that I do believe the recognition will eventually come. 

"Country Ham" - a dish by Chef Geoff Davis of Burdell in Oakland

“Country Ham” – a dish by Chef Geoff Davis of Burdell in Oakland – photo by Susan Quan

What’s next for Burdell and Davis?

Where can you eat some of Davis’ delicious food? For now, you can only enjoy The Burdell menu via pop-ups around The Bay Area. During the rest of July, Budell will have a pop-up at Seqouia Diner in Oakland’s Laurel district. For more pop-ups, you’ll have to follow the Burdell instagram.

Although this weekend’s pop-up is in Oakland, expect to see some other cities on the calendar, too. Lucky for us, in the coming year, Davis expects that Burdell will move into a more permanent home. We’ve heard that Burdell’s future home is in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. I’m so happy that Oakland gets to keep such a talented chef.

Chef Geoff Davis stands with a market bag and wearing a Kingfish Pub & Cafe sweatshirt

Chef Geoff Davis stands with a market bag and wearing a Kingfish Pub & Cafe sweatshirt

In the future, after Burdell officially opens in Temescal, we can expect to see more from Davis. That wine bar he wanted to open may come back and there are some other food concepts he’s toying with, too. For now, with the strong support of his family, friends, fellow chefs, and fans like myself, he’s enjoying the process of building his menu for Burdell through pop-ups.

I’ll leave you with one fun fact about Davis I have yet to see mentioned in other food industry news. He’s become an avid Pyrex collector. Keeping with the nostalgia of his dishes, he’s looking to use serving dishes that bring back that home-cooked feeling. I plan on bringing him one on Sunday when I go to the pop-up just for kicks.

Learn about Geoff Davis and Burdell here:

Instagram: @burdell_oak
Web Reservations can be made here: https://www.exploretock.com/burdell
Music is a huge inspiration for Davis: Listen to his Burdell playlist on Spotify

You can also listen to an interview with Davis and another talented local chef David Richard Guilloty Rodriguez(@Davis Sucio) on Youtube if you want to keep getting to know Davis. You’ll learn about some of his friends within the industry and he goes more deeply into how he got started within the industry.

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy is a professional smiling machine raised in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.

1 Comment

  1. Rodney Thayer
    July 16, 2022 at 12:07 pm — Reply

    You gush on for many paragraphs and never seem to explain it’s a pri-fixe popup. Makes it hard to find the thing to consider patronizing it. Not the best worded review to help the place get customers. Fine for foodies surfing on the iphones maybe?

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