At Miss Ollie's, Sarah Kirnon Cooks With Heart and History
Sarah Kirnon has a richly layered relationship with the Caribbean. She was born in Leicestershire, England, to a father from Antigua and a mother from Barbados. Wanting to shield their children from the racism still ripe in late-1960s England, they sent her to live with her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother in Barbados at age four. She moved back to England when she was 13, and then returned to the Caribbean as an adult before eventually moving to Oakland, Calif., and opening her restaurant, Miss Ollie’s.
“I tend to refer to myself as West Indian; I don’t say I’m British,” Kirnon says. “I was a very involved child: inquisitive and always eating. I think your senses and stimulation are open then, and that’s why I returned to cooking West Indian food.” Named for her grandmother, Miss Ollie’s folds together the sensibilities of a contemporary chef with the cuisine of her home. For Kirnon, Caribbean cuisine means comfort at the core, and that’s what she cooks to share.
Can you recall a favorite dish from your childhood in Barbados?
My comfort dish is cou-cou: corn flour gets stirred and beaten in a pot with a stick that looks like a cricket bat. It’s endorsed with gelatinous water from cooked okra—I love okra—and butter, and you constantly beat it until it turns into this beautiful, rich, yellow mound. Depending on the time of year you’ll eat it with different things, but my favorite was flying fish stuffed with oregano, broad leaf thyme, hot peppers and lime juice, steamed with tomatoes.
When you refer to making it, people will say, “Are you stirring cou-cou today?” It’s traditionally eaten on Saturdays, [which was] when my uncles played cricket and it was just my grandmother, great-grandmother, brother and myself, so we got greater portions. It was just the best dish ever. At Miss Ollie’s, we stir Friday or Saturdays.
What lasting love for food did your grandmother instill in you?
I don’t believe in ill handling; that’s something I watched my grandmother do. She’d say, “If you mistreat food, it will mistreat you.” That stayed with me, and I understood what she meant.
Growing up in the Caribbean, I literally ate from the farm to the table: my grandmother would say to pick cucumbers for dinner, and on weekends my uncles would slaughter chickens and pigs to provide for the week. We all had a hand in the food that we ate. I think that’s pretty special.
How do you describe your take on Caribbean cuisine?
I don’t like super-rich food, and I like things that aren’t handled much. At the farm, we have some beautiful radishes growing, and I’m happy to wash and eat them right away. I’m into raw, earthy flavors.
I apply that perspective to Caribbean food—to handle it as little as possible. I’m not sure why most people think Caribbean food sits in steam trays, and we just put it out onto plates. We cook most things à la minute. We don’t deep-fry our chicken—we fire up four huge skillets and skillet-fry. We do a Panamanian-style chicken grilled to order over sugarcane. We char fresh sugarcane, sit it on the grill and put the chicken on it. The sugar starts to explode, and the juices go into the meat. People are always like, “Why is it taking so long?!” It’s because we’re cooking to order. Timing is of the essence.
My kitchen crew starts mostly untrained. I tend to employ people of color and queer people—kids who don’t get to go to culinary school or work in other restaurants—because that’s who I am. I believe you have to have a special relationship with food to do those things, and that’s one of the things I teach my staff to do: to understand food.
Can you describe a dish that is inspired by your grandmother but you’ve taken in a new direction?
I grew up eating white rice, buttered cabbage and uni on Fridays with my grandmother. When our reef started to die out a couple of decades ago, they stopped allowing people to dive for sea urchin, and so the dish kind of became extinct. For my sea egg with buttered cabbage and gold rice ($14, recipe), I cook starchy Carolina rice into a porridge and then slow-cook Napa cabbage with butter and Caribbean hot pepper. Then I whip the uni and put it on top of the dish. I’m sure if my grandmother saw it, she would not connect it to the dish that she cooked for me. But she may when she tasted it.
“Authenticity” often comes into question when a chef attempts to refine certain cuisines—even those of their own culture. How do you address it?
I often hear somebody—usually some American guy who is now “the voice” of a cuisine—say, “I’ve made the dish better.” And I’m like, is it better because of food colonization, or are the ingredients better? They never explain why, and nobody questions them.
The real skill is actually looking at it historically: knowing the origin and knowing that maybe it wasn’t “refined” because my grandmother didn’t have thyme. Or because she didn’t have access to a starchy rice from the west coast of Africa because by the time she got to Barbados they were using Uncle Ben’s. I’ve had older West Indians taste the dish and know what to call it. I think the skill is the ability to make it taste as powerful as it does. It’s about remembering a dish that no longer exists in the country I grew up in. I’ve revived a dish lost to a group of people, brought it back to life and put back in people’s minds that there is an eloquence to Caribbean food.
You do a daily one-dish lunch menu. Does that help create more of a community feel at Miss Ollie’s?
For sure. People don’t like to have their routines broken up. If we don’t have what someone wants that day, they become very irate, so if we get some great snapper or something in, we can’t do a special. But this is the one restaurant where I’ve seen a lot of repeat customers because of it. They sit in the same place, and our staff can often place their order and set them up with no conversation exchanged because everyone knows what everyone else is there for.
“It’s about remembering a dish that no longer exists in the country I grew up in. I’ve revived a dish lost to a group of people, brought it back to life and put back in people’s minds that there is an eloquence to Caribbean food.”
How is Oakland a community for Caribbean food overall?
There are few black-owned or black-run restaurants in Oakland, or even black cuisine, now; there were many more back in the ‘80s. Oakland is going through gentrification, and most of the homeless people living on the streets are black folks. Oakland is a close-knit community. People are trying to hold on to the elements that used to be here and patronize those restaurants. That is great and worrying at the same time.
What is your place within it?
I have to say, I find it rare to have the number of repeat customers that we have. But Miss Ollie’s is not just a restaurant. At the nonprofit farm I manage, we work with formerly incarcerated folk—mostly people of color. Every year for Christmas we do a homeless drive: last year we fed 700 people. That’s great, but it’s not OK. We’ve become this community place and this community voice, and that’s what restaurants used to be—places to discuss politics and religion and how to change the world. I didn’t intentionally create it, but Miss Ollie’s became that place.
About Miss Ollie - Sarah Kirnon Remembers Her Grandmother
Before I started school in Barbados, my uncle would ride my grandmother to work on a bicycle. My grandmother would sit on the crossbar, and then I would sit on the handlebars, and we’d ride to work.
You have to remember, this was in the early ‘70s, when plantations were still run by white folks and most of the people who worked on them were black folks. So my grandmother went into a different entrance. I didn’t understand it then.
My grandmother would go to work, and there would be a list of dishes she would have to cook for the people who were the masters of the house. And then there would be dishes she would cook for people in the fields or the drivers. When I think of that now…wow! That’s intense. My grandmother always had her head held high. We never grew up thinking we were any different; they were just different circumstances. So I say that my grandmother treated all people equally.
Her employer’s family would have arrived generations ago as plantation owners. They had brought someone from the U.K. to teach my grandmother to cook traditional English dishes. So on one side, she’s making cottage pies and sort of boring British food. And then on the other side, for the workers she’s making baked pork or steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves. So that’s how I saw her cook differently; my grandmother was an amazing person to be able to flip back and forth in different styles of cuisine. She never went to England—she never knew the kind of food they had there—but she was taught to do that. When they would have high teas on the plantation, she would make cucumber sandwiches and sausage rolls. If there were parties, she would bring some home at the end of the night, and we would be looking at cucumber sandwiches like, “What’s this?” There was a lot of irony and laughing…
But some of this is very historic and tells you about the late-blooming Caribbeans and how they still held on to—I don’t want to use the word slavery—but plant-ocracy. And that affected people’s livelihoods or their houses or homes. My grandmother spent time cooking for them because they entertained a lot, which meant she spent less time with her family. She would come home and cook straight away. As wonderful as that is, that meant she was cooking all day, every day. Though cooking for her family was clearly a lot different, of course.
Jacqueline Raposo is a New York City-based writer.