Oswald owner/chef Damani Thomas learned to make fried chicken by watching his grandma cook it as he worked on his homework after school. Now, that same fried chicken recipe is behind one of the most popular items on Oswald’s menu, and is one of the reasons the casual fine dining spot has become a mainstay in downtown Santa Cruz.
Thomas characterizes the menu as seasonal California comfort cuisine that utilizes local organic ingredients along with his own twists and inspiration he’s sourced from his life, like his grandma’s fried chicken.
The Dungeness crab tower appetizer, savory mushroom bread pudding and flourless chocolate soufflé are some of the other top sellers. Meanwhile, the bar serves up a mix of classic and original signature cocktails; the extensive wine list features local staples and a variety of international selections. Oswald offers indoor and outdoor dining and take-out; they’re open Wednesday-Saturday for lunch (noon-3pm) and dinner (4pm-9/10pm). Thomas spoke with GT about his culinary career, its birth and the night that defined it.
How did you get started as a chef?
DAMANI THOMAS: I was a busser at a restaurant in Oakland in 1988. The place had a huge kitchen, and I was very impressed by the level of coordination and organization, the team aspect, and just how synchronized everyone was putting out hundreds of dinners per night. It was amazing and a pleasure to watch. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I asked the chef for an entry-level position, so I started as a prep cook and learned basic skills, and ended up working all the stations. I enjoyed it and did it well. I learned a lot about food; it was like discovering a new world.
Tell me about your first night at Oswald’s current location.
It was New Year’s Eve in 2008, and we had a lot of new staff. It was a hard night but rewarding because we were closed for two years and many guests were regulars from our old location. At the end of service, the guests all gave me a standing ovation that lasted for like five whole minutes. It felt great and was affirming. I knew what I could do, and that moment proved that I was doing the right thing, that all the hard work had paid off, and the community loved us.
121 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-423-7427; oswaldrestaurant.com.