The making of a boss lady
N’Gina Kavookjian preserves her family’s culinary heritage at the restaurant South while restlessly starting other ventures
N'Gina Kavookjian—co-owner of the Southside Park restaurant South—was taken aback the first time she saw a portobello sandwich in the '90s. Well, those aren't her exact words.
“I totally freaked the fuck out,” she says. “I was like, ’Whaaat? You can put a mushroom on a sandwich and it’s not a burger?’”
New to certain styles of California cuisine, Kavookjian witnessed the portobello sandwich on the original menu at Cafe Bernardo in Davis, where she worked as a busser on the restaurant’s opening crew. Her mind was blown, she says. After that experience, she scrapped her dream of becoming a storm-chasing meteorologist to hunt down recipes instead.
“It was an eye-opener—I mean, I didn’t know wine came in two colors,” she says. “I had a piece of Pugliese and I thought I was so fucking worldly because I had this bread, and it was great and I was hooked.”
Today, at her restaurant South, Kavookjian has fused the California cuisine found at Cafe Bernardo with her family’s own heritage of Southern food. She elevates the basics with an eye toward purity. Just several years ago, its best-selling item, fried chicken, was classified in the minds of American consumers as merely cheap fast food. The restaurant has risen alongside the cachet of the dish.
“Literally, fried chicken and especially barbecue right now, it’s like the hottest shit on the planet,” Kavookjian says. “Fine dining restaurants are doing fried chicken that wouldn’t even touch it [a decade ago] because it was considered cheap peasant food.”
At South, the fried chicken meal with a biscuit and kale costs $14—not expensive, but certainly not fast-food priced, either. And, since the restaurant opened in 2014, Sacramento consumers have learned to pay more for that higher quality. Last year, the restaurant sold $326,000 worth of fried chicken. That’s almost a third of a million dollars and 76,000 pounds of down-home and unpretentious meat.
The best-selling meal, called Petey’s Fried Chicken, has helped to fuel a small empire: In December, the Kavookjians opened a vintage boutique named Quinn across the street and are about to open a Jewish deli, the Proletariat, on Sixth and S streets. But first, that chicken and Petey herself took a 2,000-mile, generations-long journey to get to Sacramento.Heirloom recipes
On the sidewalks of Citrus Heights in the ’80s, a ragtag group of kids from the same apartment building played games of pretend. Inside, one of their mothers fried catfish while listening to jazz singer Angela Bofill, speeding up her stirring of a roux in sync with the beat. Patricia “Petey” Guyton yearned for her family back in Louisiana and Mississippi, so she baked the buttery biscuits that she hoped would conjure them.
Unbeknownst to Guyton, one daughter took mental notes as she peeked at her mother’s kitchen.
“At a certain point you realize, oh my gosh, they were actually watching me and paying attention and they love what you were giving them,” says Guyton, now 60.
Prior to their life in Citrus Heights, Guyton had started cooking seriously at the age of 13 in Mississippi. Back then, she had become a homemaker; as her parents were off at work, she made meals for her two younger siblings.
During her daughter N’Gina’s childhood, Guyton cooked Southern food out of homesickness, but also picked up inspirations from her Northern California surroundings—influences apparent on South’s menu today, with its lighter, more healthful take on Southern food.
“When you’re so far from everything that is so familiar, that it’s holding onto those last bastions of what being in Mississippi is: those family dinners,” Kavookjian says.
Guyton never cooked from exact measurements—she understood teaspoons by what they looked like in her palm. So Kavookjian learned by observation. When her mother cooked chicken, she would ask for precise amounts.
“And I don’t know,” Guyton says. “I could do it in my sleep. I can’t tell you how much seasoning to use. You get to that point where you just know.”
Kavookjian thinks of her mother’s culinary lessons as a birthright. Their weight as a legacy grows heavier as Guyton struggles with cancer. The recipes at South preserve her lineage.
“Food is so important to the story of your family and who you are and where you came from,” Kavookjian says. “For our family, you have French-Creole influences, you have West African influences, and I think that’s important to be able to kind of have that history that you can keep just sending on through your familial line.”
Her ambitions continue to grow in presenting her family’s point of view. In mid-February, the menu at South expanded further beyond NOLA staples like po’ boys and gumbo to include other favorites of the American South, like chicken cracklins ($6) and smoked pork chop ($16).
“There are probably thousands of dishes within that whole Southern category of food,” she says. “It’s like Italian food where it’s so hyper-regional. … You go to a town that’s maybe 15 miles away, and the cooking—completely different. The ingredients that they’re using are different. … We’ve only kind of touched the tip of the iceberg.”They go low
The same day that apparent hate-crime vandals had broken windows at MoMo’s Meat Market and tagged a swastika on a neighboring barber shop in Tahoe Park, South received a racist review on Yelp. The reviewer compared Kavookjian’s husband—co-owner Ian Kavookjian, who happens to be white—to a slave owner and called Kavookjian herself a “field n-----.” Instead of wallowing, she agitated for Yelp to take down the review immediately (in the end, it took the platform a few days), and she waited in line at MoMo’s to support a fellow small business.
“There is only one way to shut racist people down, and it’s to do the exact opposite of what they think you’re capable of doing,” she says. “No, actually, what’s going to happen is we’re going to have a line that goes out the door. … I happily waited two hours in line to get my chicken sandwich.”
This was hardly the first time South had received heinous Yelp reviews. A year ago, someone compared her to Aunt Jemima. About twice a week, she hears the N-word she says.
“That is really hard to do your business and on top of that have people say vile things that they know will trigger you because they want to get at you so bad,” she says.
Despite these rattling setbacks, Kavookjian doesn’t sit still. In addition to launching her boutique and preparing for the Proletariat, she has wide-eyed dreams of organizing a neighborhood event series in Southside Park. Even while sharing her plans, her husband asked when she would come home as backup for watching over their two children.
“He wishes I would pump my brakes,” she says.
But essentially, both of the new businesses launched as marital bargaining chips.
“The Quinn was a kind of funny ultimatum that was given by my husband,” she says.
Their home storage had reached the breaking point because of hoarding bric-a-brac from their side business of wedding planning. N’Gina gathered up all the goods and signed the lease on a storefront within a few weeks. Throughout its first month of business, starting in December, the Quinn sold $7,000 with Kavookjian’s keen eye for charming details like air plants peeking out of vintage cabinet drawers.
The Proletariat, scheduled to open in 2018, came about simply because Ian Kavookjian missed the East Coast delis of his youth.
“I just reached a point when I couldn’t hear him complaining about sandwiches anymore,” N’Gina Kavookjian says. “I was like, I’m just gonna open you a deli and you’re gonna source all the meat and cheese … and we’re gonna be done with this. Literally the Proletariat is a—I don’t know if there’s a version of, like, ’happy life happy wife,’ but like, it’s making him happy.”
Still, the stresses add up.
“I have my days where I’m just like, ’Wow, I really signed up for this shit, I don’t know if I can do this today,’” she says, “and I have other days where I’m just walking around and I’m like, ’I’m a Boss Lady.’ But it’s hard, it’s really hard.”
What keeps her going? The way that her mother role-modeled for her, working a 40-hour workweek while whipping up bomb meals—Kavookjian wants to do the same for her daughter.
“[My daughter] was like, ’I wanna be a boss lady like my mom, she tells people what to do,’” Kavookjian says with a chuckle. “And that was really cool, a little 5-year-old girl got that and recognized that she could be a boss lady when she grew up.”
Meanwhile, Guyton proudly watches as her own daughter takes on the boss lady role. When she shows up at South, she invites strangers to try Petey’s Fried Chicken. When they ask why, she boasts, “Because I’m Petey.”