At the intersection of Broadway and 41st Street in Temescal sits Brenda’s, a casual counter-service joint featuring New Orleans-inspired cuisine, complete with all the classic Southern kitchen favorites, from “award-winning fried chicken” to “famous cream biscuits and signature stuffed beignets.” Serving East Bay locals and tourists alike since 2019, Brenda’s is the third restaurant founded by chef proprietor Brenda Buenviaje, who first opened Brenda’s French Soul Food in 2007 and Brenda’s Meat & Three in 2014 before deciding to expand out from San Francisco and into the East Bay.
I had the privilege of sitting down for a phone call with Brenda as she drove through Arizona on a cross-country family road trip to discuss her experiences navigating the culinary world as a queer woman of color.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Brenda, the daughter of a Filipino-immigrant father and a Filipina-Creole mother, attributes her affinity for fusion cooking to her mixed heritage and cross-cultural household. Although Brenda nurtured a love for cooking from a young age, she didn’t consider a career as a chef until her early twenties. In fact, before donning her apron and chef’s hat, Brenda got a bachelor of fine arts in painting and drawing from Louisiana State University. “I always knew I wanted to do something creative in my life … In my six-year-old mind I pictured myself becoming some sort of famous artist.”
But after graduating college and moving back to New Orleans, Brenda realized that she preferred channeling her creativity in the kitchen rather than on the canvas. Brenda worked a series of kitchen jobs in New Orleans and later New York, before hitting it off with a fellow chef and artist who also identified as a queer man. After working for him for three and a half years, during which she was promoted from working in the pantry to chef de cuisine, she decided to follow him to San Francisco as he pursued his venture to open a new restaurant in the area.
Although the restaurant itself was not successful, Brenda fell in love with the people, culture and food scene of the city and couldn’t fathom the thought of leaving. Additionally, as a queer woman, Brenda found a populous, vibrant and healthy LGBTQ+ community residing in the city, allowing her to no longer like an “other” anymore. “It became more of a solidified part of my identity,” she says.
From an early age, Brenda knew she was gay, but didn’t come out until her early twenties. Although she chose to work under queer chefs since the start of her career, Brenda recalls, “I was not super out in the kitchen … I was already dealing with one, being a woman and two, being Asian,” and she didn’t want to add more potential fodder for discrimination. As she reminisces on her early days as a chef, Brenda states, “For the most part, I think the biggest obstacle throughout my whole younger career was just being a woman … You have this 29-year-old Asian woman who has this resume demanding this salary and saying I can do this and having, you know, honestly usually a white man looking at me and saying ‘Uh, no you can’t.’ ”
But Brenda didn’t let the limiting beliefs of others keep her down; her tenacity and vision of one day opening her own restaurant propelled her to push through every obstacle until those dreams became a reality.
“As I got older, I realized that I was really sick of working for other people”, Brenda remembers, detailing the planning of owning her own restaurant, a process that lasted around five years, intermingled with “a couple moves, a marriage, a divorce, a kid … (But) the whole time, I had this vision for this casual restaurant that was just going to be mine.”
In 2007, Brenda was able to purchase a “tiny little greasy spoon in the Tenderloin” which she had found on Craigslist, ultimately transforming the place into Brenda’s French Soul Food and launching her career as a chef proprietor. Today, she has a total of four establishments under her belt, the most recent of which, Brenda’s San Jose, opened earlier this year.
Libby Truesdell, Brenda’s wife and business partner, has also been a restauranteur since 2007, the year the pair decided to open their first restaurant together. Originally working in academia, Libby’s disenchantment with teaching led her to leave her job and partner with Brenda to open Brenda’s French Soul Food. During the phone call, Brenda glances back at Libby in the passenger seat to ask her how it’s been running the restaurants with her. “I’ve loved every second of it,” she responds.
The two chuckle when remembering the beginning stages of starting their restaurant business together. “The first six months were such a blur … We took this crappy, filthy, greasy little spoon on Polk Street and literally drove around and picked up lumber and windows and put it together.”
14 years and one pandemic later, Brenda is now the chef proprietor of four restaurants and the face behind her own popular YouTube channel, “Cook Like Brenda,” which she hints may be a preliminary trial run for a future cookbook. She started the channel with her 19-year-old son last summer, when the reality of the pandemic really started settling in, as a way to “keep us all engaged, keep us feeling kind of normal, keep money going, keep jobs in place as much as we could.” The channel features detailed walkthrough videos of New Orleanian and French soul food recipes, including jambalaya, basic French toast and Louisiana seafood boil, for anyone around the world to try out in the comfort of their own home.
At the end of the day, Brenda says she doesn’t envision franchising: “It’s not been my plan to take over the world,” she said. Rather, her main goal is to “Make sure that everybody is taken care of.”