Hi Felicia’s charismatic 25-year-old chef is redefining fine dining for the rest of us

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As the time nears 6:30 p.m., the crowd gathered outside Hi Felicia’s downtown Oakland Gate buzzes with anticipation as spectators wait for the show to begin. Glasses of sparkling wine passing from hand to hand bring the din to a climax.

When Hi Felicia was still a moderately illegal and highly successful pop-up, chef and founder Imana started every dinner party with a toast. It’s one of many rituals that haven’t changed since she moved into a permanent brick-and-mortar space. With her staff gathered around her, she raises her glass to the warm evening sun, raising the proverbial curtain on the night’s performance.


Dripping candles, campy art, exposed brickwork, and plants galore create a cozy and playful vibe at Hi Felicia.(Photograph by Erin Ng)

Inside, candles burn everywhere, their wax hanging like vines from tree branches, their flames flickering against the onyx tile of the bar. Campy and intentionally ridiculous works of art – sad-faced clowns, oddly proportioned portraits, brightly colored abstracts – hang everywhere. On one wall, the restaurant name Hi Felicia, which reverses slang “bye Felicia” to accommodate those who don’t always fit in, is painted white against a black brick backdrop.

Hand-written name cards on each table direct diners to their seats, as they did back in the days of Hi Felicia’s dinner club, and as soon as everyone is comfortably seated, the first courses arrive in quick succession : a tangy and refreshing beetroot and strawberry gazpacho, raw scallops dressed in salted plum and habanero, salmon crudo with dill and spicy madai aguachile.

Then Imana, who has only one name, goes on stage.

Imana is only 25 years old but she is already a force of nature. She radiates confidence as she greets her guests and describes in detail each of the meal’s 14 courses. His California comfort food is heavily influenced by regional Mexican cuisines and tonight includes tamales made with lavender-flavored masa, caviar sopes and the “very polarizing” pickled onion granita. Since everyone expects fried chicken from a black chef, she says, a conspiratorial smile touching the corners of her mouth, she also included her version: fried chicken served with rustic oatmeal and collard greens.

Over the next three hours, a beautifully choreographed dance takes place in the kitchen and dining room. The traditional distinction between those who prepare the food and those who interact with the guests does not exist here. Each course is led by a different member of staff who is personable and decidedly individualistic, even those wearing chef’s whites.

“I want the terms front of house and behind house to be obsolete,” Imana told me later on Instagram. “We are one team. I never want anyone to think of my restaurant and have the illusion that I created it. We have all done it.

It’s no secret that Imana has creations on a Michelin snap, and as I devour the dishes one by one, I can see her star rising. The squab tostada (substituted for mushrooms in my case) is meaty and deliciously seasoned. The cashew queso, a vegan melted cheese dip made with caramelized onions, jalapeños and homemade tortilla chips, is a bowl-licking treat and the only dish that regularly features on the menu from the pop-up. of the restaurant days. Raw halibut with miso, cashew salad and blue corn tortillas is an explosion of intensely delicious flavors.

But if that star comes, it will honor more than what appears on the plate. It will be for an almost entirely black, brown or queer collaborative casting. It will be for a restaurant where people of color and diverse identities are not just welcomed but celebrated. And it will be for how a 25-year-old chef and entrepreneur expands the definition of fine dining, to hell with the establishment.

Chef Imana (center) with her diverse team of rock stars at Hi Felicia.(Photograph by Erin Ng)

“The game is completely rigged. Despite our best efforts, this world is unfair and unbalanced, and I often feel like I can never win,” says Imana, who grew up on the edge of poverty in Los Angeles. “I am extremely direct, direct and intense in all aspects of my life and I know that is what I owe everything to.

When it’s almost time for the curtain to fall on the night’s culinary performance, each table gets its bill with a side of agua fresca to sweeten the deal. Hi Felicia is not cheap. Dinner here will set you back $195 per person. Wine pairings cost an additional $125 and each check includes a mandatory 20% service charge.

But while that puts the restaurant out of reach for many, the decision to charge exactly what the meal and all the staff at Hi Felicia are worth is equally subversive. Why wouldn’t they charge a hefty sum for delicious food and great service? White male owned restaurants do it all the time. Look across the bay.

“I will never fail because even if something goes wrong, I have nothing to lose from being exactly who I am,” says Imana. “It’s how I know, in my heart, that whatever I do in life, I’m going to excel. I have nothing to lose.”

// Hi Felicia is it open for having dinner From Friday to Monday by reservation; 326 23rd Street (Oakland), explorestock.com/hifeliciasupperclub.

It’s an atmosphere.(Photograph by Erin Ng)

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