Cosplaying chef from ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ moves to Bay Area

In this recurring series, SFGATE food editor Steph Rodriguez sits down with Bay Area chefs and those with deep ties to the food industry at their favorite dives, cozy mom-and-pop spots and beloved taquerias. Over deliciously affordable bites, ‘Did You Eat?’ profiles the region’s most talented tastemakers.

As I wait outside Alamar Kitchen & Bar on the corner of Grand Avenue and Valdez Street in Oakland, I see a short, spunky woman in the distance rocking a pair of Jordans and quickly approaching with a full head of wavy, light purple hair. She’s moving with purpose and carrying two armfuls of craft tall can IPAs. I’m meeting up with chef Mary Lou Davis, originally from San Antonio, Texas, and runner-up on season 19 of “Hell’s Kitchen,” a high-stakes cooking competition on Fox hosted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. 

Although Davis didn’t take home the executive chef position at Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen fine dining restaurant in Lake Tahoe, the 29-year-old has moved on to new opportunities right here in the Bay Area. She originally moved to California with a goal to stage at different Michelin-starred restaurants and expand her culinary skills. Over the past six months, she’s been working a new part-time position at Viridian, a hip Oakland restaurant and bar just blocks from where we’re standing. She’s also the host of an online cooking show streaming on YouTube called “Geeks & Grubs,” where she cooks the foods from her favorite TV shows and movies right in her home kitchen.

Needless to say, Davis is a creative force bursting with seemingly endless endeavors — and she’s just getting started in the Bay Area. 

Chef Mary Lou Davis at Alamar Kitchen & Bar in Oakland.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

‘I’m from the South’

A self-proclaimed hugger and a downright Texan through and through, Davis is also a lover of crab boils. She said steaming piles of snow crab, corn cobs, sausage links and golden potatoes conjure memories of her mother, who’s also named Mary, and it’s a dish that reminds her of home. 

“At home, I’m making a crab boil at least once a week. That is my thing. Crab boils are my favorite,” she said. “It’s not just because it’s absolutely delicious, which it is. And it’s also keto, because my mother does that. But growing up, we would have a crab boil whenever the family would get together.”

It’s the reason Davis chose to meet up at Alamar, which happens to be the restaurant of yet another Oakland-based cheftestant, Nelson German, who competed on season 18 of the Bravo series “Top Chef” hosted by Padma Lakshmi. 

“Community is very big here. People are friendly, but in a different version of friendly from Texas,” she said from the seat of our table. “I’m from the South, you know, Southern hospitality is such a big thing. I was telling one of the guys that when we’re upset with you, we’re not going to yell at you or curse you out or anything. We’re going to tell you to have a blessed day.”

The salt spring mussels boil at Alamar Kitchen & Bar.

The salt spring mussels boil at Alamar Kitchen & Bar.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

Hospitable as ever, Davis brought all of those tall cans for the kitchen crew at Alamar, just in case our interview and dinner reservations ran late. Once we settled into our table, the conversation never hit a dull moment. She radiated positivity and cracked colorful jokes that matched her purple locks and shiny lip gloss. But don’t get it twisted. Davis goes hard in the kitchen, and is no stranger to butchering proteins, sauce-making, fermentation projects and any other tedious tasks that Viridian executive chef Kevin Tang throws her way.

“She really brightens the entire mood of the kitchen,” Tang said. “Before she comes in, we’ll just kind of be silent. We listen to music and we’re prepping. And she comes in, and it’s just like an explosion of energy. She gets the mood up.”

Inside Alamar, a packed dining room is filled with the sound of clinking glasses and the aromas of peppery seafood and fresh herbs. Davis orders crab poppers and oysters to start, and says she moved to California to further pursue her culinary adventures and to learn more about Asian cuisine under the guidance of Tang, a decorated chef who’s worked in Michelin-starred kitchens such as Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown. 

The crab poppers at Alamar Kitchen & Bar.

The crab poppers at Alamar Kitchen & Bar.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

“They’re quirky and eclectic and that’s how I would describe myself. My whole theme is I like to do foods from different fandoms and animes, and so I wanted to work at a restaurant that serves a lot of Asian food so I can better understand it,” Davis said. “I want to learn about this culture so when I’m doing the recipes I have something to pull from. It’s not just me trying to appropriate someone’s culture. I know that if somebody else were to make jollof rice or gumbo, I would be like, ‘That’s not how you do it. Quit trying to take it away.’”

The biggest difference between Texas cuisine and California cuisine from Davis’ perspective is the abundance of fresh produce in vivid colors. She’s in awe of her new local farmers market that she frequents in Berkeley and is quickly adjusting to the sheer variety of ingredients California provides its chefs. 

“The whole fresh-local thing, it’s a lot different than it is in Texas. We have fresh and local, but our fresh and local isn’t as bright and colorful as it is here,” Davis said. “I remember I got here and I called my mom, and I was like, ‘Mom, there’s a watercress with roots still on it.’”

In south Texas, Davis said she often cooked with a lot of tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapeños and serranos, and instead of showcasing the ingredient with a simple spritz of salt like she’s experienced so far in California, Texas-style tends to stew and manipulate the ingredients into a new dish, or it’s accompanied by a sauce. 

“Here, everything is just so fresh and green. Everything is so colorful,” she said, dipping her crab popper into a zesty orange sauce. “It’s been exciting going places and learning different cuisines. I understand all the shows now where the chefs just go, and they travel and they learn. I feel like I have the wide-eyed innocence of a child. And even being at Viridian, I was showing chef Kevin how to make grits and blackened shrimp the other day.” 

At Viridian, Davis said she appreciates the collaborative environment chef Tang creates. He recently perfected a slab of ribs with a sticky black bean and malt glaze that Davis suggested he serve with a side of potato salad, so he did. 

Viridian is at 2216 Broadway in Oakland. 

Viridian is at 2216 Broadway in Oakland. 

Jeremy Chiu

The chefs and crew at Viridian even help Davis test out new “Geeks & Grubs” ideas from the kitchen when it’s slow. 

“I love being in the kitchen and talking s—t with the guys,” she said. “I love learning things and I love when we’re all in the weeds together and then at the very end we take a shot together and the camaraderie that comes with it.”

She’s finding her groove at Viridian, and with their support, she looks forward to launching “Geeks & Grubs” events similar to the one’s she hosts at various comic conventions and culinary stops throughout the country, right here in the Bay Area. 

“I really want to start doing pop-ups with my ‘Geeks & Grubs’ brand,” she said. “Nobody’s doing what I’m doing. In a world where everybody wants to be different. I’m actually different.”

Creating ‘Ratatouille’ moments

“Do you need your bib?” Davis said from across the table as she fastened a flimsy plastic bib around her neck. Just then, a large plate of bright-red snow crab speckled with fresh herbs and doused in romesco butter and spices lands in front of her.

Chef Mary Lou Davis poses at the end of the evening's meal at Alamar Kitchen & Bar.

Chef Mary Lou Davis poses at the end of the evening’s meal at Alamar Kitchen & Bar.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

Without hesitation, Davis dove right in, expertly cracking crab legs before plucking the glistening white meat from its casing and dipping it into the herbaceous butter sauce. I ordered the mussels, which came with chunky potatoes and a side of crunchy bread perfect for sopping up all that delicious, savory seafood broth.

“We’ve got to make some space,” Davis said of our table full of food before savoring another bite from her pile of crab. “That’s all I want in my life. Bury me in something garlicky and crunchy.”

Life after appearing on “Hell’s Kitchen” has been full of new experiences for Davis. After beating out 16 other contestants on the show, chef Kori Sutton ultimately inched past Davis, winning the chance to be chef Ramsay’s executive chef in Lake Tahoe. After Davis accepted her loss in stride, the bubbly young chef said she took that momentum and simply ran with it. 

“I’m a very positive and happy person, so I’m never upset for too long,” she said. “I was like, ‘Hey, let’s try something else. Let’s learn something new.’”

She’s also an avid cosplayer who recently participated in Brooklyn Comic Con in June, where she hosted a pop-up under her “Geeks & Grubs” brand and cooked bento boxes for her fans, inspired by the “Demon Slayer” anime series on Netflix. Her friend Rosie Fitts accompanied Davis to the East Coast where the two friends sported “Demon Slayer” costumes.

“Witnessing how many people came out to Comic Con to see her and to support her was really special. She just has a lot of support in different communities and I think that’s a beautiful thing,” Fitts said. “She’s got a lot of support in the cooking community, and then she also has this whole other world that she’s into, which is cosplay. It was really amazing to witness so many people coming up to her with so much support.”

With more than 40 costumes and at least 70 wigs in various cuts and colors, Davis combines her passion for cooking with her love for anime and other fandoms such as Disney and “Harry Potter.” When she’s not traveling the country hosting pop-ups, she’s entertaining fans on her YouTube cooking show under the “Geeks & Grubs” umbrella, where she recreates iconic foods from her favorite shows and movies such as the namesake dish from “Ratatouille” or the souffle cheesecake featured in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on Nickelodeon.

Mary Lou Davis is the creator of "Geeks & Grubs," a quirky cooking show she hosts on YouTube where she recreates the foods from your favorite TV shows and movies.

Mary Lou Davis is the creator of “Geeks & Grubs,” a quirky cooking show she hosts on YouTube where she recreates the foods from your favorite TV shows and movies.

Courtesy of Miguel Angel Rodriguez

Her “Geeks & Grubs” Instagram account, where she teases clips from all of her latest YouTube episodes, has more than 90,000 followers. In one moment, she’s making New Orleans-style beignets with powdered sugar dressed as Princess Tiana from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” and in the next, she’s rocking a long, gray beard and moon-shaped spectacles in character as the wizard Dumbledore from “Harry Potter” as she whips up a batch of raspberry tartlets. 

If you’ve ever dreamed about tasting the foods from your favorite movies or television series, Davis is creating those experiences for fans in real life, chock-full of costumes, humor and a bit of stage makeup. 

“Doing Tiana’s thing was really easy,” she said. “I did one episode with ‘Black Panther,’ and it was more inspired by, but I learned a lot about the culture as well and figuring out which parts of Africa they were in. It’s fun for me because everything turns into a learning experience.” 

Davis does the editing and shooting and creates the overall concept for each segment of her online cooking show, with new episodes airing once a month. For an upcoming episode of “Geeks & Grubs,” fans can expect Davis to recreate Brock’s jelly doughnuts from the “Pokemon” series. Fitting, as she also sells recipes in the form of Pokemon cards with cute illustrations drawn by her friend and “Geeks & Grubs” co-creator Jess Thomas.

If that isn’t enough on her plate, Davis is also working on a new comic book. Once done, fans will be able to purchase the series through her website and the stories will feature different Bay Area chefs reimagined as superheroes who help a cartoon-like Davis fight a gang of enemy ingredients. She’s even tapped chef-owner of Horn Barbecue, Matt Horn, to be a character in her latest creative endeavor.  

“I’m really excited because I want to work with different chefs, especially ones that are here and have them integrated into the comic book,” she said. “I want it to be like, Chef Mary versus the buffet of baddies. We’re going to have one where I’m fighting this brisket, but I can’t defeat him because he’s just too tough, so I would go to Matt Horn and be like, ‘Hey chef, I need you to defeat this brisket.’”

Davis shared with me that someone once told her it was admirable that she went back to cooking after her time in the spotlight on “Hell’s Kitchen.” For her, cooking is ingrained in her soul. It’s a humble profession that continues to teach her more about herself and the kind of chef she aims to be. 

She plans to plant seeds in the Bay Area and stage at different Michelin-starred restaurants to gain knowledge, and eventually, she has plans to move yet again to the vibrant city of New Orleans to tap back into that side of her culinary landscape. But for now, the Bay Area is where chef Davis is calling home.

“It’s like a secret level that I unlocked on a video game that’s going to take me on a whole different path. I picked up and moved, and it was terrifying, but I’m so happy I did,” she said. “I don’t just want to make cooking videos all day. I want to have experiences and learn. And then, go back home and make my cooking videos and then watch ‘Drag Race’ until I fall asleep.”