Roux40 in Oakland celebrates black girls and conventional delicacies

Roux40’s Jambalaya with shrimp and lobster. Image credit: Roux40

A restaurant celebrating black heritage cuisine, run entirely by black women and women of color, opens in the Temescal district this fall.

The restaurant, named Roux40, is a project by Bay Area-born Christina “Lala” Harrison and will be in the former Hog’s Apothecary Space (Magpie for short) at 375 40th St. Harrison has an ambitious vision for her restaurant; She wants it to be much more than just a place to eat.

“This restaurant is literally living my dream and it’s the result of all my hard work,” said the 35-year-old chef. “I really want to be able to give women a space to be leaders, whether they are queer women, young women or women of color.”

At Roux40, Harrison intends to introduce diners to more nuanced versions of dishes they may already be familiar with. Many people consider Cajun, or soul food, to be representative of all black cuisine, Harrison said. She credits the popular Netflix series High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America by food writer Stephen Satterfield for helping her better define the food she wants to prepare.

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“I hope this restaurant will help me tell my story as a Black American,” Harrison said, adding that Roux40’s menu is much larger than fried chicken and mac and cheese, although those dishes will be included.

For example, one of her favorite dishes is her own take on red beans and rice – a farro risotto with red beans, sweet potato gremolata, and charred green onion vinaigrette. “People are overwhelmed by it and think there’s meat in it, but that’s not the case,” Harrison said of the guests who tried it during the tastings. “I want you to get the flavors of a traditional dish like this in a different package.”

Harrison’s take on the red bean and rice classic is a farro risotto with red beans, sweet potato gremolata, and charred green onion vinaigrette. Image credit: Roux40

On Sunday evenings, she plans to offer a dinner designed to conjure up dishes that many black families recognize as an after-church meal, but with a farm-to-table sensitivity. A preview menu for Roux40 also offers dishes like a vegan gumbo with kale, sweet potatoes and chickpeas. There is also a jambalaya with frontal prawns and lobster and a “Greens & Beans” with black-eyed peas, vegetables, shallots, peppers and sherry-bacon vinaigrette.

Much of the produce used in the Roux40 will come from Brown Girl Farms in Hayward and local urban farmers owned by colored people, and the wine and beer menu will be sourced from Black-owned wineries and breweries.

Finding pork head cheese – an economical way to use any part of a pig – was a staple in many Southern Black households, Harrison said she plans to eventually put it on a sausage plate. “My grandma used to put it on crackers and I thought ‘eww gross’ but there is so much history behind it,” she said.

Harrison grew up in Richmond and Berkeley, the daughter of a single mother, Yvette Radford, who is “this amazing woman like a superwoman,” said Harrison. Radford now serves as vice president of foreign and community affairs for Kaiser Permanente and has worked for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and other local officials. Harrison said her mother was that “amazing role model that has so inspired me to this day.”

Roux40 founder Lala Harrison ponders the plans for her upcoming restaurant Temescal. Image credit: Roux40

The only thing she didn’t notice from her mother was her interest in food. That came from Patricia Curtan, a former sous-chef at Chez Panisse. Curtan, the longtime illustrator for Chez Panisse’s menus and Alice Waters’ books, was the mother of Harrison’s best friend from childhood.

“She always made the freshest food, much of it from her own garden, and handmade pasta,” Harrison said. “Even if I didn’t invest that much in food back then, it definitely caught my eye.”

It wasn’t until a friend started taking cooking classes at Laney College that Harrison was drawn to do the same. “It just triggered something, right away from my first day, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life,'” she said, noting that she “even enjoyed the grunt work”.

In her early days in restaurant kitchens, she said that she often had to prove herself as a woman of color among the mostly male chefs and experienced discrimination and disrespect in the process.

At one point, she replied to a Craigslist ad for a then-nameless uptown restaurant. The job was on the iconic Oakland spot Flora, where he cooked under Chef Rico Rivera, who is now the Chef / Owner of Oaklands Almond & Oak. She stayed for almost seven years and worked her way from Garde Manger (cold dishes) to Sous Chef. “Rico really took me under his wing and invested in me as a person and as a cook,” said Harrison. “He was a big influence on every decision I made.”

At Flora, she also worked on an all-female line of chefs for the first time. She still fondly remembers it and says, “It was like magic, like butter”.

From Flora, she went to Youth UpRising and then opened her own catering company, JusLa Eats. When the pandemic started, JusLa worked with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, providing hundreds of meals for those in need. Eventually, Harrison started making pop-ups with JusLa, refining her vision and refining her ideas for what was to become Roux40. A GoFundMe helped her raise funds for the company (she welcomes donations but doesn’t want investors, she said).

When Roux40 opens – Harrison’s target date is October – Harrison hopes to prioritize hiring young blacks interested in the hospitality industry. She worked closely with many people like this at Youth UpRising, an East Oakland organization that provides opportunities to young, vulnerable residents.

There is a lack of people of color in leading roles in restaurant kitchens, Harrison said, a problem she has experienced firsthand. With Roux40, she hopes to change that by offering members of historically underrepresented groups a new path to success.

“Some are able to learn through experience, but they don’t always get the opportunity if they don’t have the experience,” she said. “I want more of these young people to have the opportunities I had that have brought me to where I am now.”

When it opens, Roux40 will be located at 375 40th St. (near Opal Street), Oakland. Check out Roux40 on Instagram for the latest news on openings and pop-ups.

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