Daddy O's Cafe—A Rainbow Coalition at Work

Daddy O's Cafe—A Rainbow Coalition at Work

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SAN FRANCISCO—Just to the left of the cashier at Daddy O's Cafe is a carefully arranged bouquet of healthy bamboo stalks with tiny gold ribbons on them. Not exactly what you expect at a Southern-style soul food restaurant. But Daddy O's, a new place on the corner of 9th and Folsom Street in San Francisco, is not exactly typical in lots of ways.

For one thing, it is primarily run by a Chinese family.

Sunny Qin used to be a restaurateur in China before she moved with her family to San Francisco and fell in love with Ron Hollins, an African-American who has spent 28 years as a police officer in the city. A year ago, Qin told Hollins she and her family wanted to get back into the restaurant business, but, as Hollins says, "to be honest, I didn't feel that opening up a Chinese restaurant would be the way to go in San Francisco."

Soul food, on the other hand, struck a chord. "I was saying to my wife, ‘You know, I've never gone into a Chinese restaurant and seen a black waiter or waitress or a black cook,’" Hollins says.

That's another thing .Daddy O's Cafe has an African-American head chef, Kevin Warren—a rarity in Northern California. Unlike many of his competitors, Warren does not shy away from calling his cuisine "'soul food." "That's what we do here, real soul food— there's no 'we're gonna dazzle you with this or that'. The concept here is real, homestyle, soul food that your grandmama made ,and that's what you're gonna taste." Warren, a graduate of the San Francisco Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy who will soon be featured in the upcoming season of America’s Test Kitchen, wanted the flavors of the food to reflect the essence and history of soul food in the same way that he learned the “dying art” from his grandmother.

“Our people came here under obviously strained circumstances with slavery and we were forced to cook for the slave master, and the slave master gave us what was left over, and from that pain that we were experiencing through slavery this food came about,” Warren says.

Warren’s own story is reflective of triumph over adversity. Born and bred in the East Bay city of Richmond, Warren is not only serious about cooking, he is serious about setting an example to his community back home. “To come from where I come from, where it is infested with crack and infested with crime and everything else, drive by shootings to come from that to this point is unheard of when you come from Richmond,” Warren says.

“I don't come from the middle class, I come from poverty. My passion for my people and for them to see me in this position is really important to me. That's one of the reasons that I push myself even
harder to succeed.”

Daddy O's Cafe sees itself as not only a pillar of success in the African-American community but as a bridge between the African-American and Asian communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Hollins and Qin made that connection seven years ago, when Hollins signed up for a class on qigong -- a physical and mental training exercise similar to tai chi -- which Qin was running.

Now that their dream restaurant has opened, Hollins and Qin hope to extend their joint philosophy toward the community. Among other things, they want to employ an even more diverse staff. They already have African-American waiters, a Chinese-American cashier, and Mexican line cooks, but according to Hollins, they would also like to hire a Chinese waiter some day, too.

"If you go back far enough historically speaking, we all wind up in the same place," Hollins says, remarking on the similarities that can bring together different communities in San Francisco. "Until we understand our brothers and sisters, we won't be able to understand ourselves."