Chef Sarah Kirnon behind the counter at Miss Ollie's.
Growing up on the island of Barbados, Sarah Kirnon learned about the meaning of community from the same woman who taught her how to cook: her grandmother, Miss Ollie.
Today, Kirnon’s new restaurant, located at Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, deliciously serves up both Caribbean-style cooking and community.
“It is not just a restaurant; it’s a meeting place,” Kirnon said on a recent Thursday at Miss Ollie’s, as she deftly mixed flour into dumplings in preparation for the day’s lunch menu. “Everyday was like that at my grandmother’s house. If you couldn’t eat at home, you knew you could eat at Miss Ollie’s.”
Since opening its doors on December 4, Miss Ollie’s has quickly become a popular standout in Oakland’s restaurant scene, with customers lining up for a taste of Caribbean comfort food in a casual format. Currently open for lunch Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., the menu features mouth-watering flavors inspired by Kirnon’s childhood: Curry goat with buttered collards and roasted mixed potatoes. Grits, Smithfield ham and red-eye gravy. Oxtail pepperpot, cornbread, turnips and black-eyed peas. Escoveitch fish with cassava cake. And of course, Kirnon’s legendary fried chicken, a recipe handed down from her grandmother.
“The menu reflects the Caribbean and reflects my background,” Kirnon said. “My father was born in Montserrat and raised in Antigua. My mother’s family is spread out from Barbados to Guyana to Trinidad and is Black, East Indian and Chinese. In the menu, there are African, Indian and Chinese elements. There is just this great mix that to me represents what the Caribbean is.”
Born in England, Kirnon moved to Barbados at four years old to live with her grandmother, a cook at a sugar plantation. As the youngest girl in the house, Kirnon started cooking even before she was tall enough to reach the stove—and hasn’t stopped since. She became a professional chef at 19.
Now 43, Kirnon lived in England, traveled around Europe, spent some time in Toronto and went back to Barbados before ending up in the United States. She settled first in San Francisco, cooking up Italian at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack in the Mission and Southern-style fare infused with Creole Cajun at Front Porch. In 2005, she moved to Oakland—and rediscovered the sense of community she experienced growing up.
“In my travels around the world, I have never felt so comfortable in one place,” she said.
In Oakland, Kirnon finally got a chance to pay modern homage to Caribbean Creole flavors at Uptown’s Hibiscus restaurant. “I realized there was a niche for what I wanted to do,” she said.
On the menu: Miss Ollie’s fried chicken, stuffed with herbs like cilantro, marjoram and cloves. Kirnon’s grandmother passed in 2011.
In early 2012, Kirnon resigned from Hibiscus and began working on making her dream of opening Miss Ollie’s a reality. The space, at 901 Washington Street, was previously inhabited by another Black-owned restaurant, Jesso’s Seafood, which shut down in 2009. With floor to ceiling windows, it now has counter service—where customers can order—communal tables, bar stools and colorful slices of Caribbean-style decor, such as a wooden board painted with the words “Creole doughnuts” and a drawing that encourages one to “get some oxtail.”
Kirnon is thrilled with the mix of people Miss Ollie’s is attracting, some returning two or three times a week. “People are welcoming the kind of food we are doing here,” she said. She hopes to be up and running with full liquor, beer and wine by the end of January. Dinner and weekend service are forthcoming. Soon, she aims to “bring community more into the next level of Miss Ollie’s,” including by training youth how to cook.
“Growing up (in the Caribbean), community is drilled into you,” she said. “You’re part of a community. You move as a pack. That’s how you survive in the world. In the last three or four years, this big shift is happening in Oakland, where people are moving as a group, and people want to support each other. In food, music, fashion, politics, whatever, people are coming together and finding a way to connect, and that appeals to me in a large way.”
Old Year's Night is a tradition in Barbados that celebrates the year past and ushers in the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, Miss Ollie’s is partnering with The People’s Kitchen to recreate this tradition with a four-course dinner, followed by music and dancing. The evening will benefit The People's Kitchen, a sliding-scale community restaurant in Swan's Marketplace. Tickets must be pre-purchased here.
Each month, we’re bringing you one to two profiles of Oaktown’s black culturemakers, a diverse group of folks who are leaving an indelible mark on the city we call home. Follow RealOakFolks on twitter at #realoakfolks and at RealOakFolks: Meet Oakland's leaders.