.Willows & Pine Honors Oakland Family History

Creole soul food made by a chef whose family once owned West Oakland’s The Barn

The name of Chef Michauxnée Olier’s restaurant, Willows & Pine, pays homage to her family’s history in Oakland. When she was growing up, her mother and grandmother worked at The Barn, which used to be on Pine Street in West Oakland. “I loved being in that space because it was family, it was home,” she said. And the first house her great-grandparents bought was on Willow Street. Naming her first restaurant in their honor is Olier’s way of saying thank you because they worked hard to take her family out of poverty.

Olier is applying the same principles she learned at The Barn to Willows & Pine. “Everyone who works here is family or a close family friend,” she said. “There’s a sense that we haven’t lost the legacy. The Barn was the base, and I wanted that again because I remember how important it was to our family’s structure.”

The Barn was a soul food restaurant, but Olier is incorporating both soul and Creole dishes on her menu. “I’ve done a fusion with staples from both sides,” she said. “People tend to think of Creole food as jambalaya and gumbo, and the seafood that came out of the bayous and waters near New Orleans.” The chef added that Creole food has a French flair to it, but there’s also a mix of other cultural influences too, from Africa to Portugal to Cuba.

Olier’s recipe for a Chilean sea bass entrée ($32) includes a Jamaican curry made with coconut milk. “You’re getting those Caribbean flavors in the sauce,” she said. “We don’t season the sea bass because it’s delicious on its own. What highlights it is the sauce.” Etouffee is a red gravy that smothers chicken and shrimp dishes. The chowders the restaurant makes get started with a mirepoix base of onion, celery and carrots but they also add kale, “to get a little heartiness.”

The chef’s grandmother cooked at The Barn her whole life even after the ownership changed hands, but Olier became a professional chef after her career at a law firm ended. Her relationship with food is complicated. “A lot of people don’t understand how I might have grown up in a soul food restaurant dedicated to feeding people, and at home there was a lot of food insecurity,” Olier said. “Cooking was what saved us, and learning to be creative when there wasn’t an abundance of food around.”

Before the soft opening of Willows & Pine last September, her first attempts to start a cooking career began with selling meals at her son’s football practice. She received enthusiastic responses and, in time, started a catering company called The Busy Wife. Despite The Busy Wife’s success, Olier deliberately decided not to extend the brand to name her restaurant. “I’m tired of being the busy wife. It’s overrated,” she said. “My skills come from a restaurant family—that’s how they got in me.”

In between catering jobs and Willows & Pine, Olier met Coi chef Daniel Patterson through Sobre Mesa’s Nelson German, another of Olier’s mentors. During the pandemic while his restaurant Dyafa closed, Patterson gave Olier free reign to run a year-long pop-up out of Jack London Square. He told her, “People who look like you don’t get access to spaces like this, so figure it out.” 

Olier said, “He gave me the key and I figured it the fuck out. We made it work and created brunch by the harbor.” She brought her kids to help, then her grandmother, and by the end of that year every weekend was a party. “People loved us,” she said. “We had a good time and we weren’t supposed to be there.”

As of this week, Olier is taking gumbo off the Willows & Pine menu to slowly introduce a seafood boil in its place. The chef explained that gumbo is essentially a soup, and a seasonal one at that. “Our seafood boils will have shrimp, scallops, mussels, corn and sausage over a giant baked potato,” she said. Before the boil is introduced on the menu though, she wants to make sure her cooks prepare it the way she wants it done because she doesn’t want to overburden the kitchen.

For the brunch menu Olier makes biscuitée doux ($14), homemade biscuits with caramelized peaches drizzled in a honey butter sauce. The chef once caught a customer licking the plate clean and from then on she’s affectionately called the sauce “honey crack.”

Willows & Pine, open Wed-Sun, 5–9pm and Sat-Sun, 10am to 3pm; 3525 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland. 510.842.3564. willowsandpine-restaurant.com.


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