Burdell’s, Chef Geoff Davis’ upcoming Auckland restaurant, is a restaurant for soul food — not a Southern eatery, he points out. Named after Davis’ grandmother, the restaurant draws on the history of the Davis family and the great migration to create dishes that resulted from his experiments with food, as well as time spent in Michelin-starred restaurants. “It’s soul food that I grew up eating, that my parents grew up eating, but in that context of favoring produce we have in California, and associating food with vegetables and farming, which is what I think it was,” Davis says.
Davis has worked at some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area, including Oakland Commis, Cyrus in Healdsburg, and Aqua Water Laurel in San Francisco. He says black food is largely seen as “just fried chicken and crackers,” dishes associated with prepared foods in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Davis wants to change that and challenge the notion that California cuisine is tied to European rules and cooking techniques. “There will be a lot of techniques I’ve picked up over the years from working in a lot of Europe-focused restaurants, but the food will always be based on memory, nostalgia, and research about what my family used to cook for,” Davis says.
To explain the restaurant, Davis shares a deeply personal story: In the early 1920s, he reckons, his grandmother traveled from North Carolina to New Jersey with her young infant. The baby died along the way, and as Davis says, “she literally had to go into the woods and have a little party by herself, and then keep walking.” She started a new life and started a family, which included Davis’s grandmother and namesake restaurant Bordel Demby. “That level of determination to get to where my grandmother needs to go is something that drives the drive to get Burdell into a permanent home,” he says.
Given Auckland’s diversity and history as an immigration center for blacks in the 1930s and 1940s, he says the city is an ideal place to craft a new interpretation of black food, weaving it with Vietnamese, Mexican and Filipino ingredients. “Sort of the same way Creole food is made by forcing all these people together, [with] Respect their techniques and ingredients — they’ve all become one food that just doesn’t blend anymore,” he says.
It has taken time for Davis to reach this point in his career, and he is sure to cook this style of food. Working in a fine diner, 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 a ‘fried chicken man,'” says Davis. “But over time, I got the feeling that Bay Area chefs tend to open up a place that honors their family history and the dishes they were brought up on — why did I get upset about doing that? So I took a second and tried to think of why, and I was like, I have to tell the story. That It’s the food I’m really excited about and passionate about.”
Although Davis says he’s found a site for Bordell and is collecting investments, for now he’s keeping popups around Auckland. He’s already toured the Tribune and through to the end of July is cooking at Sequoia Diner on Sundays, with upcoming events at Bay Grape and Tierra Vegetables Farm. In these pop-ups, diners can get a taste of what Davis hopes to share at Burdell: a fixed menu that changes every week. The first dish is a set of three snacks, such as oysters from Washington served with limes, along with celery and powdered ice.
When you delve deeper into the menu, the connection to the food’s history becomes clearer: a dish of cherries with white cheddar cheese and Lady Edison’s country ham, made in North Carolina to emulate the ancient traditions of aging meat in the late 1800s, Davis says. Meanwhile, Hoppin’ John is well known but Davis takes him back to his origins. A dish made of cooked red peas with pork and rice, it was sold as street food in the early 1800s by a slave named John with a damaged leg who was “jumping and screaming in the streets,” says Davis. The dish has since evolved to be made with black-eyed peas, which are easy to grow and less susceptible to disease. At Burdell, it gets a refresh in California with Dirty Girl Produce gusanito beans cooked with shichito peppers, celery, onions, and shredded pork fat and skin; It is then long-cooked with ginger, white pepper and cayenne pepper before being mixed with golden Carolina rice cooked from Anson Mills and Swiss chard, before tossed with lemon, green onions and parsley.
Another dish that is more special to the history of the Davis family. Davis’s grandfather on his father’s side fished rabbits with his father in the 1930s. The chef serves a rabbit dish based on memories of his grandfather’s hunting stories and food made from what has been caught. Today, that translates to scrambled Devil’s Gulch Ranch fried and then glazed in a broth made with rabbit guts, plus rabbit stock, Dirty Girl Produce green onions, white pepper, Worcestershire, and apple cider vinegar.
“I think Burdell is something that we hope will change a lot of people’s minds about what black food is, and what is possible with black food,” Davis says. Rather than boiling the culture of black food into a handful of dishes, Davis instead hopes to rediscover himself—while continuing his search for food, reading, and talking to his mother and aunt about their experiences, such as foraging for dandelions by the wayside for dinner as kids. “There is a lot of variety and variety in the cuisine that hasn’t really been reviewed,” he says.
For dinner at Burdell’s next popup, follow the restaurant on Instagram at Tweet embed For event information and to make reservations via tok.