How This Female Chef Is Battling Sexism and Racism in the Food World

(Photo: Courtesy of Logo)
permission granted 11/18/16-mattie
Richard.Ferraro@logostaff.com

How This Female Chef Is Battling Sexism and Racism in the Food World

Sarah Kirnon is serving the community in more ways than one.

Published November 21, 2016

In Hungry, a new documentary from Logo, director Patty Ivins explores gender parity in the restaurant industry, profiling three female restaurant owners in California: Dakota Weiss, Pink Delongpre and Sarah Kirnon. The film shows the day-to-day extreme challenges of running a restaurant as well as the disadvantages women face in the industry. But Kirnon, like all the women, seemed indefatigable, making her Oakland restaurant, Miss Ollie’s, not only an excellent place to eat, but an essential part of the community.

“We are coming up on our fifth year, and we’re located in what they refer to as Old Oakland,” said Kirnon. “It’s about a six-seater restaurant, we have a full liquor license and the food is based on the food of my childhood. They’re recipes that were handed down by my grandmother and we also pay homage to the African diaspora.”

“I think it’s not just about food,” she continued. “When you walk into Miss Ollie’s, we also have an altar there, and it’s a space where you feel comfortable, loved and taken care of. And that’s not just the food. that’s my staff, that’s the environment, that’s the space that we’ve created for people. We just want people to feel comfortable when they’re there.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Logo)
permission granted 11/18/16-mattie
Richard.Ferraro@logostaff.com
(Photo: Courtesy of Logo)

In addition to the consideration she gives to her customers, Kirnon cares deeply about her employees. She’s in the process of turning Miss Ollie’s into a co-op so that they can all own a portion of the restaurant and serves as a nurturing figure.

“We’re living in very different times, but when I started out many years ago, restaurants in general just had a bad rap about how they treated people,” said Kirnon. “We, in the type of food that we serve, because we’re working within our own community and because of the fractured times that we live in, see it as important to love, nurture and respect the people we work with.”

It’s extremely important to Kirnon for the restaurant to serve as a safe space for her community. She left a restaurant job in San Francisco to start her own place in Oakland, mostly due to the changing demographics of the city. “I was working in San Francisco but I was living in Oakland, and the demographic was changing so rapidly and it wasn’t really the demographic I wanted to be serving,” she said. “At that time, there were more Black folks and queer folks living in Oakland and I wanted to be around people I was more akin with.”

Miss Ollie’s has always been a site for community events. Even the other night, as people held protests against Donald Trump, the restaurant was used as a safe space. “We’re near the Oakland police station, so people actually sought coverage [at Miss Ollies],” the chef said. “We also use the space for community events. The African-American population is quickly declining in Oakland and it’s just a place that people feel safe in and comforted and where they can be around the same kind of folks.”

I asked Kirnon what her advice was for women of color who wish to enter the restaurant industry. “Don’t do it,” she laughed. But she did give some serious tips. “I really believe that women have a different relationship with food, because a lot of it is about nurturing. So just make sure, especially if you’re opening your own business, that you’re really in tune with who you are, where you come from and what you’ve been through. That will show up in what you serve and how you welcome people into your space.” It’s clearly worked for her. 

Written by Jocelyn Silver

(Photo: Courtesy of Logo)

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