James Syhabout is an Oakland native who is also the chef-owner of Commis, which holds two Michelin stars. His words follow.
Having been in Oakland for more than 40 years, Oakland always feels new — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It all goes hand in hand. I always think it’s heartwarming to see people walking around at the farmers market wearing “Oaklandish” shirts, regardless whether they have been here for a while or not — that’s community, that’s pride for Oakland.
Geoff has a singular point of view, and Burdell is an experience that is personal and ready to be shared with the world. There are a lot of young chefs going for it in Oakland right now, fulfilling their passion, and showcasing their roots. That’s exciting. And inspiring.
Seeing Geoff build and open Burdell serves a reminder of why I got into this business and why I opened an ambitious restaurant. Anything that someone is passionate about — be it art, sports, restaurants, any high-level pursuit — has to be, on some levels, a selfish endeavor. Telling your own unique story and creating a singular experience? That’s what people want, even more so after the pandemic. People want experiences. Life is short. We want to see something new and exciting and to be reminded of why we go to certain places. Why do we travel across town for a taco? Why do we go out for a tasting menu? Restaurants like Burdell remind us of those reasons.
I met Geoff when I started to formulate the Dock in Oakland, about a decade ago. He had fine dining experience — a CIA grad who worked at Cyrus, and did couple of stints in New York — but he’s from Modesto so he was familiar with California. I hired him as a sous chef and we opened the restaurant together.
While we worked alongside each other, I got to know him a little more. Especially with our mutual fine dining backgrounds, we talked a lot about school, Michelin, and wine. But it was also the other things we had in common — hip hop, records, automobiles, golf — that really got us to hit it off right away. With his talent and experience, I was comfortable handing him the food program over and letting him shine, do his own thing and find himself as a cook.
Why do we travel across town for a taco? Why do we go out for a tasting menu? Restaurants like Burdell remind us of those reasons.— James Syhabout, Commis
I would give him guidance during this time, but I also learned a lot from him. A lot of his cooking dives back to his personal history, so I gleaned new techniques, like frying chicken when bacon is in the fryer — that’s kind of a little cheat code. Even things like the way he braised collard greens taught me a lot about little nuances. That was fun to see, and it’s one area where his cooking is so special: He’s cooking from a regional, personal cuisine where it’s all heirloom recipes passed down through generations. He has an innate ability to morph these recipes into something new — or to not change them at all. The thing about Geoff’s cooking is that nothing is dogmatic in tradition.
In the years after the Dock, we stayed friends and I went to have his food at Kronnerburger, which was down the block from Commis, and then to True Laurel, where his patty melt and fried maitake mushrooms are still etched in my mind.
What’s exciting to me about Burdell is that now Geoff has carte blanche to create something. It’s not just what is on the plate. He gets to create an experience like nothing else in the country. He’s always had a really good eye for culture, design, furniture, and obviously, his food is delicious. As a chef and restaurateur, my mindset has always been to look backwards to move forward. Geoff has a similar approach, and one look around Burdell will prove that the restaurant is absolutely an embodiment of that.
Now, he can tell a story. His story.
That’s why Burdell is so important — to Oakland, to the restaurant industry, to the community. Commis is now 14 years old, and it’s incredibly inspiring to see a younger generation have the same knack for creating something new and exciting, to go through the rigors of starting a business, to even having the courage to start a business, particularly in the economic climate we’re in.
I opened Commis during the height of a recession. I remember what’s it like to go all in and go for broke. There’s nothing like it. The other day, I called Geoff to check in, and I asked him if he was excited about the opening. He said yes … but also that he was stressed out. I told him that’s adrenaline.
James Syhabout is an Oakland native who is also the chef-owner of Commis, which holds two Michelin stars.
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