It was a balmy evening in Oakland, and just off Grand Avenue, in a residential neighborhood of precipitous streets and vibrant gardens, dinner was getting underway on a sun-bathed deck with a view of the East Bay hills.
The air was fresh with a hint of eucalyptus, a hummingbird chirred in a nearby shrub, and I took my first sips of a cucumber-mezcal cocktail—cold and smoky, ever so slightly sweet from a touch of agave nectar, and subtly spiced with serrano peppers.
As the other guests arrived for the lone, prix-fixe service, the host made her way from table to table, welcoming them in turn with a warm, "I'm Imana, and I'm the chef and owner of Hi Felicia."
It's a greeting the restaurateur—who prefers a first-name-only basis—repeats like a mantra. And while it might seem an unremarkable introduction, it is not, because Imana is Black and because, at restaurants of this caliber—like the fine dining restaurants where she's worked for the past several years, some of them with Michelin stars—there are very few Black owners and chefs.
Hi Felicia is an all-outdoor restaurant on a deck overlooking the Oakland Hills.(Nick Czap)
"I've had a lot of arguments with people because I'm confrontational," she said over drinks at Snail Bar a few days later. "There's a lot of 'we love diversity.' But where do you love it? Where is it? Someone was like, 'We had a Black girl working here once,' or 'We have a Mexican overnight crew.' But who sees the overnight crew?"
Describing herself as someone who is particularly sensitive to her surroundings, Imana said, "There's an immediate comfort and difference when you see anyone not white in a management position. There needs to be someone brown in every single room, in every manager meeting, in every line cook meeting. But they're just never there and it's systemic. If I go to the Tenderloin or Fruitvale, everyone looks like me. But where are the people that look like me in nicer, upscale restaurants? That's what I want to know. I go out to eat constantly. I do kitchen tours. I'm always looking. I want to be proven wrong, but I never am. I want an answer from everyone who posted to #BlackLivesMatter last summer. Are they busing tables or are they making the wine program? I want to know where they are. Where are they?"
Imana grew up in West L.A., where she developed a taste for Mexican cooking. "I ate at Mexican places when I was really young," she said. "Places you just walk in near the beach. Mar Vista. In L.A. there's a lot of Mexican food. It's my favorite thing to eat and cook." Mexico is also her favorite place to travel, and she travels there frequently, spending much of her time at restaurants in a chef's version of R&D.
Imana didn't attend culinary school, but she did undertake a culinary education of a sort at an impressionable age. "When I was like eight," she said, "I went to cooking camp for a week. I came home cooking all this stuff. It's so funny. When my mom found out I was having a restaurant, she said, 'Oh, you always wanted to open a restaurant.' Yeah. As a kid."
Ten years later, Imana dove into front-of-the-house work at a Chick-fil-A in Los Angeles. At 19, she moved to New York, where she worked in the dining rooms of Cookshop in Chelsea, Peaches Hothouse in Brooklyn, and Jacob's Pickles on the Upper West Side. In 2018, she moved to San Francisco—"with $300 and no place to live"—and landed on her feet at Leo's Oyster Bar, then skipped to Cow Marlowe before going on to work as a captain at Coi and at Val Cantu's Californios, whose upscale Mexican cuisine she cites as an influence.
On Christmas Day, 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, she struck out on her own with Casa by Imana, a seven-course to-go menu with a beverage pairing. This February, she launched her outdoor dinner series, re-branding as Hi Felicia, the name a twist on a line from the 1995 stoner movie Friday that starred Ice Cube and Chris Tucker.
I don't get high much, but I was feeling a major buzz from the slow burn that is Imana's signature. "I love spicy food," she said. "There's so much hot sauce in my fridge. If it's not spicy, I don't like it. It hurts so good and you're fucking crying." And even though I'd always thought I had a low spice tolerance, there was something magnetic in the intensity of the poblanos in a walnut-pecan-cashew queso seasoned with onion and garlic powder; and the Thai chile in Imana's "pico de gallo bite," a colorful assemblage of gold heirloom and red cherry tomatoes garnished with a peanut and a scatter of green onions; and the fermented hot sauce on the little slab of bluefin tuna atop a dollop of guacamole atop a deliciously crunchy-juicy panko-crusted fried tomato.
Gradually, the heat increased by way of a diminutive burrito with eggs, fried potatoes, and pork sausage draped with a dark crimson salsa macha, a fiery concoction of fried chiles and nuts that originated in Veracruz and Oaxaca; then a pretty little padrón pepper with olive oil, salt, chile oil, and a spice mixture with Sichuan peppercorns that imparted a peculiar tingling sensation; and a lamb enchilada with corn, cherries, cherry tomatoes, a compelling blend of Mexican and ricotta cheeses, some crispy-cool iceberg lettuce, and an intensely hot pickled habanero crema.
The Oakland hills shimmered in a pallet of greens -- a canopy of palm, redwood, citrus and cypress. A small plane flew overhead, humming a low drone. Imana poured a spontaneously fermented sauvignon blanc -- hazy, strange and sapid.
As the evening drew to a close, Imana gathered her guests' attention and, in the hush, acknowledged us all by looking our way and saying our names, which she had committed to memory, one by one by one. And then she did the same for the cooks and servers she calls the beating heart of Hi Felicia.
It was a powerful moment of gratitude and togetherness, and in it a sense of comfort and belonging that a chef had long sought, and perhaps now found, in a place of her own making.
// Hi Felicia Supper Club (Oakland) is currently accepting reservations for select dates in October. The seven-course meal is served with five beverage pairings and is $225 per person. Find more details at instagram.com/hifeliciasupperclub