A childhood spent in the embrace of two adoring grandmothers gave birth to an Oakland chef’s deep appreciation for two cultures. One of her grandmothers was Chinese and spoke only Cantonese. The other spoke only English and had a Black southern heritage. Yet the women bonded over two mutual loves: their granddaughter and cooking.
“Both grandmothers were always hospitable. My grandmother would bring some cake or sweet potato pie for my Chinese grandmother. My Chinese grandmother would reciprocate with fish or a Chinese version of greens,” says Leilani Baugh, the owner of Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen.
The chef and restaurateur stayed with her African American grandmother Willie Mae Bush during the week to attend school in the Oakland hills. On weekends, Baugh went to her Chinese grandmother Joan Young’s home on Magnolia Street in West Oakland. “In the exchange of me, they were able to forge this amazing, unspoken friendship. When my Chinese grandmother died, my Black grandmother came to the funeral. That was her friend.”
Connecting Cultures and Cuisines
The two friends from different cultures taught Baugh how to cook Southern and Cantonese comfort foods. Baugh pays tribute to both grandmothers at the new restaurant she opened a few blocks from where she stayed with Young on Magnolia Street. “I think one thing that both of my grandmothers taught me is that you can convey a lot of different things through food,” says Baugh. “I always say I cook with love. That’s what we do when we feed our communities or our family and friends.”
Baugh started sharing her love of combining Southern and Asian flavors to a broader audience almost a decade ago. The Oakland native went from selling meals out of her home to catering jobs. Baugh was known for her exceptional cooking when ESPN selected her company Roux and Vine to cater dishes for the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers from 2017 to 2019. “I really try to put a piece of myself in the food. I make sure I take special care of how things taste and how fresh the ingredients are because that is how my grandmothers showed their love through food.”
The restaurateur fell in love with the flavors of Cajun and Creole cooking after a trip to New Orleans when she was in her 20s. She and her husband, Aaron, spent their honeymoon there. Combining the best of Cajun, Southern and Asian cooking into what Baugh calls “Casian” cuisine gives the dishes on Magnolia Street’s menu a unique point of view. “We do have some signature dishes where those things are combined. I do a garlic crab over pan-fried Asian noodles, and then I have Cajun prawns sitting on top,” says Baugh. “I do oxtail fried rice that combines those things together. I’m actually working on a Cajun dumpling right now.”
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Patrons attending Magnolia Street’s inaugural brunch in August chose oxtail hash, fish and grits and a peach cobbler waffle with honey-drizzled fried chicken as their favorite dishes. The coronavirus crisis limited service to curbside pickup, delivery or outdoor dining. However, the chef and her staff still maintained the freshness and quality of cooking Baugh’s grandmothers taught her. “That’s what they left me with. Every time somebody eats something that you made, you’re giving them a piece of you. You want to make sure at all times that what you are giving to people really represents your heart, skill and talent.”
Pushing Through the Pandemic
Baugh quit her corporate job in human resources at Kaiser Permanente last year to focus on full-time catering and cooking at Brix 581, an Oakland bar. She was thrilled when East Bay Asian Development Corporation (EBALDC) offered her an opportunity to open a restaurant at the historic California Hotel on San Pablo Avenue. Then the pandemic shut down all her corporate catering contracts and slowed the opening of Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen. “It was very worrisome because I’m responsible for other people being able to take care of their families,” says Baugh. “I’ve been extremely blessed. I haven’t wanted for anything during the pandemic other than wanting to open the restaurant and wanting to make sure my people had work.”
A phone call in June gave Magnolia Street’s owner the lifeline she needed to stay in business. Baugh partnered with chef José Andrés on his World Central Kitchen and with Steph and Ayesha Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation. Her team has prepared thousands of meals for needy people through the two nonprofit organizations. “When we got the call to be able to help them, it was such a blessing. Although it is not a super amount of money, it is enough that we were able to bring people back to work. We were able to get through all of our inspections and prepare to open when the city allowed us to do curbside pickup,” Baugh says.
Magnolia Street’s owner appreciates the help she received from the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce and her landlord, EBALDC. Baugh used the grants to buy dividers and furniture needed for the outdoor dining service. The ground floor restaurant began indoor service on October 26 but at reduced capacity. “At 25 percent capacity, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to be open more than the weekend right now because of overhead,” Baugh says. Twenty-five percent is 12 out of the 48 tables she would have under normal conditions. The Friday through Sunday operation also lets her devote the rest of the week to preparing 1,100 meals for the World Central Kitchen distribution center, also located at the California Hotel.
Teaching Moments at Magnolia
“Hopefully, our corporate catering kicks back in full-time in the next couple of weeks to take over where World Central Kitchen will leave off,” Baugh says. She is hiring in anticipation of having a full staff to handle catering as well as indoor and outdoor dining at Magnolia Street. The restaurant is set to offer live music, DJs and the works of local artists as soon as pandemic restrictions are eased. “I wanted to bring something like that here to West Oakland, where people would have a cool space to eat, listen to good music and drink fine wine.”
Chef Baugh also sees her restaurant as a place to provide teaching moments. Diners can learn about the Asian, Southern and Cajun influences on her soulful cooking and her love for pairing wine with food. That often means steering diners away from the sweet wines they might favor. “It is a marriage here. On our menus, we make sure that you have the wines that go well with the dishes that you are having. Again, it’s an opportunity to teach people,” Baugh says.
The restaurateur succeeds about half the time in her efforts to expand the palates of wine drinkers. Many of the wines offered at Magnolia Street are made or distributed by vintners of color. “I have a love for wine almost as much as I have a love for food. I think that it is mostly because there are so many different varietals and opportunities to taste and pair them with food.”
Baugh would also like to put more dishes popular in New Orleans on her menu. Although her Roux and Vine catering business allows the chef to customize menus, serving the dishes popular with restaurant patrons can be limiting. “That is part of my struggle, coming up with creative ways to present New Orleans-style food people will eat. You have no idea how tired I am of making fried fish.”
Commitment to Community
One passion Baugh never gets tired of is serving her Southern and Asian fusion dishes to California Hotel residents. Her leasing agreement calls for the restaurant’s staff to prepare meals for the tenants once a month. She finds their support heartwarming. “Our community has been awesome at welcoming us here in West Oakland, even the tenants that live upstairs. They are so appreciative, and they look out for us.”
Magnolia Street represents an opportunity to bring Black and Asian people together to nourish, feed and support each other the way Baugh’s grandmothers did. “I would not be nearly as successful as I am if the community didn’t embrace me and believe in what I am trying to do. To be able to provide job opportunities or provide meals for the people upstairs or on the street is something that I’m going to continue to do,” says Baugh.
She and some other local chefs will give out individual and family meals in tents adjacent to Magnolia Street the day before Thanksgiving. Diners who can afford to buy a holiday meal will be able to order a five-course feast from the restaurant.
Celebrating Creative Cooking
Chef Baugh gets the same joy from cooking whether people are getting a free meal or paying for it. “I think what I enjoy the most is seeing people’s faces. The pandemic itself is so hard because you barely get to see anyone.” But the chef can still hear the pleasure people get from her food. “Just hearing things like, ‘Girl, I’m going to go home and go to bed. This was so good.’ Or having people come back and tell their friends.”
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Baugh’s June appearance on the Food Network’s “Super Market Stakeout” has brought in some new fans. So have the Square TV commercial featuring Magnolia Street and the reviews from kids on the television show “Check, Please! Bay Area.” The restaurateur will be featured in another Food Network program being filmed in November. “I have people walk up to me at Costco and say, ‘You’re Chef Leilani. I saw you on the Food Network. You should have won.’ It’s very humbling.”
Despite her growing celebrity, Baugh advises aspiring chefs not to be fooled by the false notion that being in the restaurant business is sexy or highly profitable. Instead, she urges them to do research, find mentors and get educated. “I advise everybody who wants to start a business to take some form of business classes so that they do not lose time, money or energy. Those are the things that can deplete your spirit if you keep hitting walls,” Baugh says.
As for the future, the Oakland chef has another restaurant concept she hopes to launch. She is working on a cookbook and recently started an interactive, virtual food and wine series called “Chef and the Vine.”
One of the biggest dreams the wife and mother of three still hopes to accomplish is opening an incubator kitchen. She wants to give chefs of color a place to cook and take classes. “I just hate seeing people dog paddling when they could be stroking,” says Magnolia Street’s owner.
So Baugh plans to keep pushing and teaching while she feeds the community and supports people who believe what her grandmothers taught her. “You make sure that you represent your best and truest self at all times because God didn’t give you a talent for you to sit on it and be scared or mediocre. You want to be the best.”