By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER
Chef Leilani Baugh was born and raised in Oakland.
“I’m half Chinese, and half Black. I grew up between my two grandmothers. One grandmother lived in West Oakland, on Magnolia Street. The other grandmother lived by Lake Merritt. Both of them were amazing cooks,” says Baugh.
“One grandmother, she did all the cooking at the church. Made everything from scratch.” Baugh’s other grandmother took her to Chinatown nearly every day. “That’s where I learned to wring a chicken’s neck and scale a fish. I would help both of them.”
Baugh is bilingual, fluent in English and Cantonese. One grandmother spoke only Cantonese, and the other spoke only English. So the two communicated through food.
When dropping Baugh off at each other’s homes, her grandmothers would exchange meals. They wrapped up Chinese jook (rice porridge), greens, and ham hocks for the other to try. “Both of my grandmothers were very hospitable,” says Baugh.
Now, Baugh enjoys cooking “Casian cuisine” — a blend of Cajun and Asian — mixing her Southern Black and Cantonese roots. She likes to be creative and flexible with her menus, which can include oxtail and grits, garlic noodles and prawns, and roast chicken with sides of garlic green beans and candied yams.
Baugh didn’t originally plan on cooking for a living. Her degrees are in psychology, and she worked for years in human resources and event planning. She often found herself in the kitchen when planning weddings and corporate meetings. “I never fancied myself a cook,” said Baugh. “But I would always cook for my friends and family, because that’s what you do.”
Baugh began catering events in 2013. She drew on knowledge gleaned from her grandmothers’ kitchens and growing up around her uncle’s restaurant. She created her first catering company, Elle B Events, and began cooking for companies and celebrities alike. She understands the pop-up lifestyle, having sold fresh plates out of her house as well as at numerous festivals, wineries, and lounges.
In 2017, Baugh started a second catering company, Roux and Vine. Inspired by her trips to the culinary scene of New Orleans, Roux and Vine specializes in Cajun-Creole cuisine.
Right before the pandemic began, Baugh prepared to open a new restaurant, Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen, named for the street where she grew up a few blocks away.
The location: a ground-level space that is part of West Oakland’s historic California Hotel. The restaurant’s food is “predominantly Cajun Creole, [with]a little Asian twist on some of the dishes,” says Baugh.
Since the start of the pandemic, Baugh has adapted to continue feeding her customers and keep the business alive. While there are regulars, the past few months have brought many new customers as well. She hosts weekly pop-ups — special menus for a given day in the week, such as Fish Fry Friday and Sunday Suppa.
During one Fish Fry Friday in July, four cars sit at the curb outside Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen, waiting for food. The absence of dine-in doesn’t stop customers from coming through for the tasty menu. Baugh steps outside her restaurant to hand-deliver a bag of takeout. “Oh my God,” says one customer, biting into a warm piece of fried fish.
Last weekend, Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen opened its first outdoor dining. “Masks on — pinkies up — LET’S BRUNCH,” announced the restaurant in an Instagram post.
In addition to her West Oakland community, Baugh is also taking care of her local community of chefs. Along with Chef Brandon of Salt & Fire, Baugh hosted the first Bay Area food & wine Industry Night. The goal: to gather the food and wine community to check in, support one another, and swap ideas.
“Friends are closing their businesses,” said Baugh. “How can we help? What do you need? What are the best practices? We all buy from each other all the time, but we never get a chance to get together. And I think that if we can get together in our own food and wine industry community, there’s so much more we could do for our communities at large.”
Since the majority of large catering gigs have been cancelled due to the pandemic, Baugh has a few days free to cook for those who need food most. On those days, she prepares meals World Central Kitchen’s Restaurants for the People program. “We’re basically just keeping ourselves aware of the pulse of the community,” she said. “Where can we help? Who needs what?”
As part of her lease with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) — the organization that manages the California Hotel — Baugh and her staff also cook hundreds of meals monthly for the hotels’ residents.
During one of these free meal days, Baugh and her staff fed 136 residents living in the units upstairs. The California Hotel is a federal tax credit-funded project. There are over 100 apartments, many of them studios. Residents are a mix of extremely low income to 60% area median income.
“It’s a great entryway into the community here at the California Hotel,” Baugh said. The free lunch program allows her restaurant and the residents to get to know each other’s faces, to look out for one another. “It’s building those kinds of relationships that are important,” said Baugh. “Being able to help where we can and when we can.”
“We’re really lucky to have her on our team,” said Annie Ledbury, creative community development manager at EBALDC. At the California Hotel, music, restaurant owners, art, and living space come together in one place — both historically, and today.
The California is a former glamorous hotel, and a National Historic Landmark. “It was the spot to see and be seen,” said Ledbury.
The California Hotel opened in 1930, and was a commercial hotel allowing white guests only. In 1949, it became one of the few hotels where Black people could perform. A long list of performers came through, including Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holliday, James Brown, Mahalia Jackson, Richard Pryor, and later, Gaylord Birch. The hotel was also known for its Big Mambo and Afro Cuban music scene.
When new owners took control in 1953, the California Hotel became the only full-service hotel in the East Bay that welcomed Black guests. While the hotel is over a mile from Downtown, it is close to the end of the railroad line that crossed the country — making it a prime spot for traveling performers.
Visitors danced in an elegant ballroom. Connected to the ballroom was a famous Chinese restaurant, The New Zanzibar. In that spot now sits Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen.
In 2014, EBALDC acquired the hotel and did a major sustainable renovation. The ground floor is divided into four storefronts. “The vision for those spaces is to really bring back that music and culture,” said Ledbury. In 2015, EBALDC acquired the site next door, a former liquor store and parking lot, and now hosts pop-up events there featuring art, food, and music.
Last year, EBALDC put out a public call for a tenant to fill the restaurant space on the ground floor. “We looked for somebody who wanted to collaborate with the other tenants to participate in community events, to be part of this cultural hub in this deeper way,” said Ledbury.
“It’s a great project because it’s close to my heart,” said Baugh, who remembers going to the liquor store next to the hotel as a child, and hearing her grandmother tell stories about what went on there.
Next to Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen is the Bay Area Mural Program, a community-based mural organization with whom EBALDC has worked for years to create art around the neighborhood. Other tenants include the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music and Blackball Universe, a multimedia arts collective and record label founded by local musician Fantastic Negrito to support Black artists. There is also a vendor space, where residents from the hotel sell goods, and a community garden.
“Everything being tied together is the way we operate. And food is such an important part of that,” said Ledbury.
When she’s not cooking for her customers, World Central Kitchen, or the tenants at the California Hotel, Baugh looks for even more ways to feed her communities.
In June, she provided homemade cookies and water bottles for the Black Asian Unity cleanup hosted by local organization Good Good Eatz in Oakland Chinatown. “My life was spent in that community, and so to be able to help on an effort like that was amazing. I want to do more,” Baugh said.
At the clean-up, 400 people turned out to clean up the neighborhood, picking up trash and painting murals on boarded-up storefronts.
“We think clean-ups are key,” said Tommy Wong, one of the founders of Good Good Eatz. “We’re not sitting in a room talking. We’re actually on the ground doing stuff together, which very much levels the playing field for everyone. Everyone has something in common. We wanted to add to the notion of clean-ups by injecting more of a political discussion into Chinatown.”
“Looking at all the beautiful Black, Chinese, Asian community cleaning up together — it was just amazing,” recalled Baugh. “That’s what I’ve always wanted. That’s what I’ve always needed. Because growing up, I remember not being Black enough for my friends. I remember being Black, and not Chinese enough, for my family members.”
“And it’s so important,” she added. “I think that both of my grandmothers would be so happy.”
To learn more about Chef Leilani Baugh and try Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen, follow @thechefleilani on Instagram and visit www.chefleilani.com.
Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen is located at 3443 San Pablo Ave. in Oakland. Take-out is available Wednesday-Sunday with the community favorite, Fish Fry Fridays, happening each week. Menus are posted each week on Roux and Vine’s Facebook page.
Magnolia Street is open for outdoor dining Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations are required.
Both take-out orders and reservations can be made by texting (510) 205-8540.