When Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president of the United States on Jan. 20, many in the East Bay will celebrate the glass ceiling being cracked by someone with deep local roots.
Oakland chef Robert Dorsey will celebrate in a special culinary way, one that also pays tribute to his shared connections with Sen. Harris. Both he and the vice president-elect were nurtured by Mrs. Frances Wilson, the beloved first-grade teacher who taught them at Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks Elementary School. Like Harris, he was one of the students bussed to Berkeley Unified Schools as part of its integration initiative.
In 2019, during the Democratic presidential primary race, Harris said, “Mrs. Wilson instilled a sense of hope and courage within me during the formative years of my life and believed in me every step of the way.” The teacher was famously present at Harris’ graduation from the University of California’s Hastings School of Law.
Dorsey’s experience with her was similarly pivotal. “Mrs. Wilson gave me the strength to believe that I could ‘be someone,'” he said. “She inspired me to get through some tough times in my life.”
Known for his time at Oakland’s popular Blackberry Bistro, Dorsey now runs his own catering company. For Nov. 3, he created an “Election Day” take-out menu designed to honor Harris, Wilson and another shared connection, Mrs. Regina Shelton, the West Berkeley caregiver who became a second mother to both Kamala and Maya Harris during the times their scientist mother was working. With Shelton’s daughters, he devised a menu that included seafood gumbo, known to be a Harris favorite, along with other Harris-inspired dishes.
Harris has frequently told a childhood story of making lemon squares at Mrs. Shelton’s house—but mixing in salt instead of sugar. When Mrs. Shelton sampled the squares, her face clearly showed she wasn’t expecting the taste, but she gamely declared them “delicious.”
Now, for Inauguration Day, Dorsey has designed an “Inauguration Dinner” take-out menu that will include pan-fried crab cakes with remoulade, organic coastal greens, banana raisin bread pudding and, naturally, a version of “Democracy Gumbo” with bayou shrimp and sausage.
Noting that Harris has always proudly referred to her immigrant parents’ roots in India and Jamaica, his take on food honors that. “My cuisine is a melting pot,” he said. “I grew up in the Bay Area, and my food reflects the many cultures of my home.”
Dorsey said he fully expects to see dishes inspired by Harris’s background on the menu at White House dinners during the Biden/Harris administration. “You will see representation of her heritages,” he said. And, again like many, he sees her election to the second-most powerful office in the U.S. as an inspiration to Oakland and East Bay residents.
“It’s a really proud moment,” he said. “I was born and raised in East Oakland. I have waited for the systems to change.” Dorsey believes his experience of “not being part of the making of the ‘rebirth’ of Oakland,” is a familiar one for Black and Brown residents. “Now,” he said, “we have a chance to be heard.”
Dorsey and his company are also participating in Oakland Restaurant week, which runs through Jan. 18. For information, visit visitoakland.com/events/annual-events/restaurant-week/. For information about the “Inauguration Dinner,” visit chefrobertdorsey.com.