WATCH: An interview with Miss Nellie.
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OAKLAND — At the end of June, Nellie Ozen, 84, hung up her apron and cooking pots, and closed Nellie’s Soulfood in Oakland, a 50-year-old Oakland institution that she operated with her daughter Quinette Ozen. The closure left longtime diners broken-hearted. It was the end of an era.
But now Nellie’s is back at a new West Oakland location. Quinette retired, but Nellie reopened her soul food restaurant last month in a space she shares with JK’s Brickhouse Sports Bar and Grill on Adeline Street. It’s across from her old location, which is now occupied by Magnolia Oakland, a cannabis dispensary.
“I’m not sitting around getting old and full of arthritis. I couldn’t handle that,” Ozen said. “As long as I can move and I’ve got the strength to do, I’ll be making something for someone.”
Ozen said her daughter, who owned the business, has been battling an illness, and was not able to continue working at the restaurant. She encouraged Ozen to retire and they closed the Third Street location. But the woman who has been dubbed the Bay Area’s oldest soul food chef said she never intended to stay away from the kitchen for long.
“I’m going to let God retire me,” Ozen said.
One recent morning, Ozen leaned on her walker as she ladled out steaming chicken and dumplings into a crock pot, her late mother’s recipe.
“I was really missing those chicken and dumplings like only my mom could make,” said Oakland resident Tina Trent, as she waited for her take-out order. “There just aren’t too many places like this left. Everything is so fresh and made to order.”
Willie Thomas, another longtime regular from Manteca, raved about his heaping portion of shrimp salad.
“It’s closer to home cooking and the price is real reasonable,” Thomas said. “You come in here and they know you. If you come in hungry one day and you don’t have money they feed you and let you pay the next time.”
Ozen wears a red apron emblazoned with an image of former President Obama and his family as she moves about the kitchen. She’s had a hip replacement and suffers from arthritis. She said she now does more supervising than cooking. Yet she’s very much hands on, stirring and tasting food.
“I taste everything,” she said. “If it tastes good for me it will taste good for someone else.”
Ozen was raised in Jefferson, Texas. Like many African-Americans at that time, her mother had come out west to work the shipyards during World War II. Ozen, 14, stayed behind and was raised by an aunt who taught her to cook. “The first thing I really got to stir up was cornbread,” she said. “I can remember my first cake. It was going to be a jelly cake but it fell. My aunt said don’t let that stop you.”
When Ozen was 18, she joined her mother in Richmond.
She began her cooking career in 1950, bouncing around Oakland and Richmond. She cooked at the Savoy Club and Minnie Lou’s in Richmond. She ran the kitchen at The Patio, former Raider Gene Upshaw’s East Oakland restaurant. When Esther Mabry opened Esther’s Orbit Room, the former legendary jazz and blues club on Seventh Street in West Oakland, Ozen said she taught Esther to cook. Ozen has never had professional training but experiments as she goes along.
“You learn by doing,” Ozen said. “You have to feel it.”
She doesn’t use measuring cups. It’s a scoop of this, a heaping spoon of that, a dash or pinch of spice.
Nellie’s menu changes daily. Specialties include oxtails, smothered pork chops, and smothered steak, fried chicken, snapper, catfish and gumbo. The whopping portions include a choice of three sides — collards, white rice and gravy, black-eyed peas, candied yams or baked beans. Each meal comes with two cornbread muffins. Chitterlings, one of the most popular offerings, are served on Fridays.
What’s missing from the old menu is peach cobbler. Ozen said the oven in her new space isn’t up to the job and she’s working on finding a replacement.
Word has yet to widely circulate that Nellie’s has reopened. So far, business has been slow.
“I told her not to worry, watch as soon as they find out,” said Pat Gates who helps Ozen at the restaurant. “All they have to do is hear her name.
A customer who waited in line for a catfish sandwich said he is thrilled Nellie’s is back.
“This means the original Oakland is still going strong,” said the man who asked to be identified as Jason, his first name. “It’s a lot smaller but it’s still here.
Nellie’s is located at 360 Adeline St.
Legendary Bay Area soul food chef “Miss Nellie” back in business