Miss Ollie Remembered

Sarah Kirnon’s restaurant pays homage


Lori Eanes

When Sarah Kirnon opened Miss Ollie’s in Old Oakland in December 2012, the buzz was audible. The food was so soulful; the vibe so intoxicating; the whole concept of it all so simple and true, that word had it that Miss Ollie’s was yet another reason for serious eaters and lovers of Caribbean-Cal cuisine to move to Oakland.

Kirnon takes the passion for her project in stride. We caught up with Kirnon in between lunch and dinner service.

Q: So much of Miss Ollie’s is an homage to your grandmother, right down to having a prominently placed picture of her in the restaurant. Can you share a lasting memory of her, either in the kitchen, or outside of it?

A: She just couldn’t imagine people eating Caribbean food. It would send her into fits of giggles. See, my grandmother never really left the Caribbean, and she thought all of California was Hollywood. She conjured these things up in her mind. She couldn’t understand why people would queue up in Hollywood to eat Caribbean food, of all things.

Q: Was your grandmother’s personality like the food she inspired, soulful and joyful?

A: She was actually quite stern, but in her latter years, she became more joyful. She worked hard all her life and raised 10 kids on her own. Seven of hers, and then other children as well. She had a hard life.

Q: Why is it that your grandmother raised you?

A: It was the mid-’60s and Caribbeans were migrating to the UK. But in the mid-’60s, there were still a lot of race riots, and most adults didn’t want to raise their children in that environment, so they stayed back with their grandparents. They, we, were called Grandmothers’ Children.

Q: Which menu item do you think your grand-mother would most love?

A: The fried chicken is named for her. It’s her recipe. There isn’t one thing I changed. The way she seasoned it; the way she cooked it.

Q: The fried chicken is unlike many have ever had, stuffed with an herb mixture under the skin before frying.

A: It’s the equivalent of the Puerto Ricans who always have a sofrito on hand, a blend of herbs. The West Indians always have a jar of these greens they call seasoning. My grandmother had a jar of seasoning on hand all the time.

Q: What on the menu was the hardest to create and get down to perfection?

A: It’s always going to come back to the chicken. We [in the Caribbean] drain the blood, which is why I ended up going with halal chicken. It took me the longest time to find natural, good quality halal chicken. I buy it through Preferred Meats in East Oakland.

Q: If you could only have one last meal on this earth, what would it be?

A: It’s another traditional dish my grandmother would make, called breadfruit cou-cou. Breadfruit is a starch that grows on a tree, and they boil it and add salt and butter and make a porridge out of it. It’s served with smoked fish. It’s delicious. But you can’t get it here, and it doesn’t travel well. You pick it ripe and have to use it within hours.