In the flavor-of-the-moment world of Bay Area dining, you’d think being an African-American female chef would be hard enough.
“Try being a black woman in Oakland serving non-traditional fried chicken and barbecue,” laughs Sarah Kirnon, chef at Hibiscus, the year-old Caribbean-Creole restaurant that’s been flying high on critics’ radar since it opened last January in the Uptown district. “There are expectations in Oakland, and people are not afraid to speak their minds. I had a gentleman come in one day for six orders of fried chicken. He left saying, ‘I’ll let you know how this goes down.’ He’s come in once a week for it ever since.”
Outsider status is nothing new for the 42-year-old Kirnon, who grew up in Barbados cooking under the tutelage of her grandmother and great-grandmother, both well-established cooks on sugar plantations, but received no formal chef training. After pursuing careers in hotel and housekeeping management and law, Kirnon returned to her cooking roots, first on Barbados and then in London.
Ten years ago, a friend in San Francisco persuaded her to take over the kitchen at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack, the over-the-top Italian-American restaurant in the upper Mission district. Her success there led to a 2½-year stint at nearby Front Porch, where she began to add Caribbean elements to the Southern-style menu.
She yearned, though, to have a place where she could devote herself entirely to Caribbean-Creole cooking. So when the opportunity arose to transform an old Uptown nightclub into a restaurant focused on the dishes of her childhood, Kirnon jumped.
“I’ve had people say to me Caribbean-Creole cuisine doesn’t exist,” Kirnon says. “It does. But West Indian cuisine is more fluid. People move around a lot. I looked to regions such as Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana and Monserrat for dishes that had roots in each country and tried to go back to the original way it was made.”
The menu at Hibiscus reflects this melting pot, with dishes such as Phoulourie, split pea and wild nettle fritters served with shado beni (West Indian cilantro) sauce—a dish left over from plantation times; and the wildly popular Miss Ollie’s fried chicken, an homage to Kirnon’s grandmother, which offers a distinctly Caribbean take on buttermilk-fried chicken, stuffed with cilantro, marjoram, scallion, scotch bonnet, vinegar and cloves.
Kirnon says she gets her inspiration from the home-style restaurant kitchens where she grew up, most of which were run entirely by women.
“In Barbados, all my role models were women. I only saw inequality in the kitchen when I moved to England. Since opening Hibiscus, it’s been heartening to see more women of color applying for cooking jobs. My hope is to see the next generation of chefs resemble me a bit more.”