When chefs Solomon Johnson and Mike Woods met in Oakland in 2017, both had spent ample time in fine-dining kitchens. Johnson, who hails from Maryland, attended culinary school in Philadelphia and started his career working for restaurateur Steven Starr at eateries in Philadelphia and New York. Woods, who was born and raised in Oakland, moved east to Maryland for school before working in Daniel Patterson’s restaurants in the Bay Area and traveling and staging at restaurants around the world.
But when the two connected, while working for Paula LeDuc Fine Catering Company, it was clear that it was a true meeting of the minds.
“The executive chef basically put us together,” Woods recalled. “He noticed that we had similar styles; that we were both young and eager.”
Young, eager, and filled with a desire to reimagine the narrative of fine dining to one that puts the flavor and traditions of the African Diaspora front and center. And there was no doubt that Oakland was the place for them to execute their vision. Oakland’s Black community has roots stretching from the Gold Rush to the Second Great Migration, but in recent years, a steady wave of gentrification and rising rents has led to large-scale displacement of longtime residents. Still, as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and home to California’s second largest Black population after Los Angeles, Oakland remains a hub for Black creativity in the Bay Area.
“Chef Michael Woods was born and raised here so it’s home for him. For me, I have found a strong support system here,” said Johnson. “We are comfortable here. We look at the pan-African food we have adopted as the future of food here in Oakland. It’s a way for Black and Brown chefs to get their roses in the food industry.”
The chance to put those skills and culinary traditions to the fore came last fall in the midst of the pandemic. Woods was hosting a pop-up for friend and fellow chef Nelson German at Sobre Mesa while he competed on Top Chef. Johnson had been the sous chef at Sobre Mesa, which had opened just 13 days before Oakland issued its shelter-in-place order in March. When German returned from shooting, he pulled the two aside and offered them a unique opportunity — to run a takeout- and delivery-only restaurant of their own creation out of a new cloud kitchen in the Oakland Food Hall.
“We sat down, smoked a joint, and literally, came up with the menu for The Bussdown in 45 minutes,” Johnson said. That menu is rooted in two basic principles: this is food that they want to eat, and food that reflects places and ingredients relevant to their experiences. Half of Johnson’s family hails from Jamaica, so it was important that Caribbean food be represented. Woods has spent time traveling in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, and wanted to highlight the crossover ingredients found throughout Afro-Latin cuisine.
“A lot of these food products are indigenous to Africa. We tried to focus on creating a menu that is genuine to our history, and a representation of who we both are,” Johnson said.
The menu, boasting instantly cravable fare including jerk chicken, fried plantains, and crispy-edged mac ‘n’ cheese available in various meat-and-three combinations, is prepared with the care and attention of a high-end tasting menu, and features diligently sourced ingredients, including rice and beans from Marsh Hen Mill, an heirloom grain providor on South Carolina’s Edisto Island.
The Bussdown, which was immediately greeted with accolades and a dedicated following, has proven to be a good warm-up to the duo’s next venture—OKO, a pan-African fine-dining concept that the chefs will be previewing in a monthly, supper club format. After a successful launch in late June, their upcoming dinner on July 24 quickly sold out. Tickets are now available for their next supper that’s scheduled for Sunday, August 29.
“I think a lot of Black chefs, when they become successful, they do their best to blend in. They try to stay out of the political stuff. They don’t want to have to fight that battle anymore,” said Johnson. “But I think we’ve got to step up. We’re going to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
For them, that means celebrating the richness and complexities of African cuisine, from using Swahili on their tasting menus, to sharing the deep history of the products they use.
“Some of these food products got here because enslaved Africans braided them into their hair. We have rice and beans in America because of that,” Johnson said, by way of example.
The eight-course menu, accompanied by a natural wine pairing, will change by the month, highlighting different regions of Africa.
“This tasting menu will take you through a journey,” Woods said. “When it comes to fine dining and African food, we can open those doors. If we can push the envelope, we’re doing what we need to do.”
Woods notes that while soul food has a stronghold in the Oakland culinary scene, an in-depth menu focused specifically on pan-African flavors and traditions, presented in a fine dining context, has been lacking.
“The places that provide high-quality experiences are few and far in between,” he said. “The pan-African fine dining concept is new and it certainly seems like we are maybe two out of a handful of chefs who are attempting to highlight the pan-African cuisine on an elevated level. Our saying is ‘no risk, no reward.’ Someone has to do it and we are willing to.”
While OKO is certainly a culmination of their creative journeys thus far, the food and the philosophy will hopefully create lasting change in the food world at large.
“Our success will ultimately push the pan-African food diaspora forward, but our food is not a ‘trend,’” said Johnson. “Pan-African food is a collective representation of our past, present, and future. If we treat this like a trend, we would be doing the cuisine and the culture a disservice. This diaspora will help the culinary industry unpack lots of racially charged issues, give Black and Brown chefs more credibility with recipe and menu development, and opportunities for growth in a predominantly white industry.”