At Chef Geoff Davis’ restaurant, Burdell, a couple of diners told him they were surprised that fried chicken wasn’t a staple on his soul food menu. While he was on the way to the Temescal neighborhood where Burdell is located, the chef defined his approach to the cuisine for me as, “an ethos of cooking.”
For Davis, soul food encompasses something beyond a couple of familiar dishes. To expand on the idea, he made an analogy with Italian food. Bay Area chefs aren’t making Italian food in the exact same way chefs are making it in Italy. “The intention is there, the way of thinking about food and cooking, more than in specific dishes,” he said.
In October, Davis took the time to write an impassioned online response to one critical customer who Yelped, “It’s quite obvious from multiple reviews, that’s [sic] others share my same sentiment. THIS IS NOT SOULFOOD!!”
Davis replied by asking the question, “Why do we put each other in a box? We’ve gotten a couple negative reviews from guests that are a bit stretched from our concept.” He added, “The big point for me for this restaurant is that it is really an exploration of a cuisine that has been ignored and been sidelined.”
At Burdell, named for one of his grandmothers, Davis has created a platform to express his ethos, a point of view in the kitchen that’s personal and authentic for him. “For multiple generations, soul food has meant a lot of different things to different people,” he said. People attach a certain price point and a certain style of food to the concept. “I really want to break that mold.” Typically, he explained, soul food restaurants are open all day and serve food from a steam table.
“I want to tie soul food with the food my grandparents told me stories about, going foraging and getting ingredients directly from the farm or from their gardens,” Davis said. These are stories that hearken back to the 1950s and 1960s before the industrial food revolution. “And before housing projects and redlining disconnected Black people from access to land and fresh produce,” he said.
Davis and his team are dedicated to foraging in Bay Area farmers’ markets. He mapped out a typical schedule where they source ingredients: Tuesdays at the South Berkeley Farmers’ Market; Thursdays at the Marin Farmers’ Market; Fridays at the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market; Saturdays at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market; and some Sundays at the Temescal Farmer’s Market. “We’re using the highest quality ingredients we can get our hands on,” he said.
Davis’ background in fine dining provided him with an alternative way of serving soul food, one in which steam tables are left out of the equation. He worked for James Syhabout, the Oakland chef who made his name with Commis and Hawker Fare. Since leaving his employ, Davis said that Syhabout has remained a friend and a mentor to him. Earlier this fall, Syhabout wrote an article about Davis for Resy entitled, “Why Burdell’s Debut Is So Special and Inspiring—Especially For Chefs.”
“There’s a lot of preparation that goes into our simplest dishes,” Davis explained. The craft comes through in a dish that sounds, superficially, like any home cook could make it. Tomatoes ($16) is a salad composed of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, torpedo onions, herbs and a glorious buttermilk dill ranch dressing. The tomatoes, cut into generous quarters, were likely some of the finest ones grown in the late summer sun. Davis should find a way to bottle that tangy ranch dressing.
Farmers’ market vegetables like okra ($28) and greens ($13) appear on Burdell’s menu with greater degrees of complexity. Davis slow-cooks the greens with smoked ham hock, berbere spice and cider vinegar until they’re about to melt. The okra was served as a light, vinegary stew with dandelions, toasted sesame and purslane.
Barbecue whole shrimp, heads still attached ($26), appear on a plate that’s lovingly smothered in a Worcestershire and brown butter sauce. Slices of white bread are grilled so they can sop up the dark brown, glistening sauce. Davis’ sourdough biscuits (two for $10) are crisp on the outside and tender inside, served with a cider honey butter.
While he was growing up, Davis’ parents were both avid cooks who were very interested in food. His family also spent a lot of time going out to restaurants. “My mom would always want me to review the restaurant—what I liked and what I didn’t, how I felt about the service, etc.,” he noted. From the outset, it seems that he was fated to become a chef. He recalled that each summer the family would pick one cookbook to cook their way through. “I would be in charge of the shopping list and the plan for the meal’s budget,” he said.
The concept for Burdell occurred to Davis about a decade ago. For five or six years though, he had a few false starts. But it was the series of weekly pop-ups he held at Andrew Vennari’s Sequoia Diner in 2022 that created the interest and momentum, which led to the restaurant’s recent opening. “We changed the menu every week,” he said. “We wanted to show off the range of the cuisine. We had one couple who came to most of the pop-ups because we kept changing what the offering was.”
One dish, the pork neck, was a standout that made the transition to the restaurant’s menu. “In one of our first pop-ups, it was the same cut but treated a little bit differently,” Davis said. “The [pop-up] barbecue shrimp is really similar to the shrimp we have on our menu, but we did it with okra rice and cornbread.” He noted that all of the pop-up dishes could potentially show up again at the restaurant. “But 98% of everything on our menu comes from the farmers’ market, so it’s just really dependent on what we can get that week. That’s what really drives what goes on the menu.”
Despite a few diners expressing their disappointment about the absence of fried chicken, Davis believes Burdell is serving people what they want. “We just don’t want to compromise and pander to what people expect when they hear the words ‘soul food,’” he said. “I think soul food is the only true American food that was born here, and it needs a voice and room to grow into the future and not just continually be doing recreations of more simple food.”
Burdell, open Wed to Sun from 5-9pm, 4640 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 510.239.9287. burdelloakland.com.