Minnesota Soul: A state with a sparse history of black-owned restaurants looks toward a bountiful future

Mateo Mackbee of Model Citizen prepares classic dishes including roast chicken, French onion soup, and pumpkin pie.

Mateo Mackbee of Model Citizen prepares classic dishes including roast chicken, French onion soup, and pumpkin pie // Photo by Becca Dilley

It isn’t an accident that “Minnesota” and “soul food” are not exactly bedfellows. 

Unlike other major northern cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul did not see a significant migration of African-Americans between the first and second World Wars. By the 1940 census, there were just 4,646 black people living in Minneapolis, and about as many in St. Paul. Today, African-Americans make up less than six percent of Minnesota’s population (up from three percent during the Great Migration), and in spite of our perceived liberalism, we are considered the second worst state in the country for black people to live based on household income, access to employment, home ownership, and incarceration rates, according to a widely distributed report by 24/7 Wall St. 

Throughout the 20th century, black Minnesotans were redlined into North Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, the latter destroyed by the construction of I-94 in 1968. And while our cities have seen flashes of good African-American cookery, no robust “scene” has developed.

Even before its devastation, Rondo was home to few restaurants—bureaucratic blockades and access to capital have blocked black culinary entrepreneurs for generations, continuing into the present day. Gloria Jeanne Lindstrom Lewis, interviewed for the The Rondo Oral History Project said, “If you wanted to eat out, you had to get out of Rondo.” 

Just one problem, however: most restaurants outside of black neighborhoods refused service to African-Americans, including famous spots such as the lauded Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale.

The workaround that the black community conceived were social clubs, which typically served basic eats like burgers, chili, and hot dogs, and sometimes quarts of beer. Men could BYOB, as they do at the The Sterling Club, still operating in Rondo since 1918. However, such unlicensed establishments were often raided by the police.

But a new wave of women and men are redefining what it means to be black, and cooking, and eating in Minnesota. While there may be few historical markers to grasp for, beauty and potential lies in the open space, and in the vast opportunity for inventive, delicious evolution.

The Faces of Minnesota Soul Food

Lachelle Cunningham ■ Chelle’s Kitchen

Lachelle Cunningham // Photo by Becca Dilley

Lachelle Cunningham // Photo by Becca Dilley

As the founding chef for Breaking Bread, North Minneapolis’ social enterprise restaurant, Lachelle Cunningham has received a lot of attention. People often turn to her for answers to Minnesota soul food’s biggest questions. It’s a role she simultaneously enjoys and finds ironic due to its constraints—a public expectation that she produce a repertoire of classic meat-and-dairy focused dishes such as fried chicken and mac and cheese. 

But since exiting Breaking Bread early this summer to launch Chelle’s Kitchen and work as a culinary instructor at St. Paul College, her mission has changed. Now, she’s focused on sussing out alternative stories about and the healing potential within soul food with her project Healthy Roots.

“We’ve always been connected to the earth,” she says of her new focus on vegan and plant-based eating. “We’re sitting up here calling soul food swine-laden, deep-fried [foods] that were originally for survival. But meat was used as a supplement. We lived off the land foraging, fishing, gardening, and hunting to supplement our meal. We’re so ingenious; we have a knack for creating something out of nothing.” 

What she calls soul food “stereotypes” of today are really celebration foods, and she’s eager to help others get connected to deeper, truer African-American cuisine. Ingredients like staple plants brought from Africa, including black eyed peas, okra, yams, and greens, are now her kitchen’s cornerstones. Think vegan banana pudding and peach cobbler with coconut oil instead of butter or lard. “It’s a whole different texture and different experience with the food,” she says.  

When asked what “Minnesota soul food” means to her, she brushes off the idea that Minnesota should even have its own individual black cooking identity. Instead, she says, let’s focus on solidarity. 

“The food should be bringing us together. Food shouldn’t limit us or pigeonhole us. How can we be more unified?”

Jared Brewington ■ Funky Grits

Jared Brewington // Photo by Becca Dilley

Jared Brewington // Photo by Becca Dilley

There’s an umbilical cord between the soul on the sound system and the one on the plates of grits. “This is the food the people who made the music I love were eating. The food has the same backbone as the basslines,” Jared Brewington tells me, upping the volume on some Parliament Funkadelic.

Brewington’s dad, Mark Brewington, raised his six kids in the Jehovah’s Witness South Minneapolis Kingdom Hall a stone’s throw from the restaurant. Meanwhile, his great uncle, soul singer Sonny Tilghman of Sonny Til and the Orioles, made sure a young Jared always had a backbeat to his pious upbringing. This singular mash-up of music and religion had a profound impact on Brewington. “Larry Graham and my dad were friends with Prince during his studying of scripture, and eventual baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness,” he says.

Grits anchor the menu at Funky Grits. “Grains are life—it’s the base for all global nourishment. Almost 100 percent of the globe’s sustenance is grain based,” he explains. 

There’s another, more practical reason, too. “I’m up and down these streets every day, and that’s the number one question I get: ‘Y’all got shrimp and grits?’” 

But Brewington grew up eating everything. His mother loved food, and went from cooking miso and tofu to Indonesian chicken to double-decker Dagwood sandwiches. His menu is an eclectic mix of “urban Southern fusion” that includes a smoked walleye cake with Cajun seasonings. 

“I think I am Minnesota Soul Food,” he smiles. “I’d hold that up.”

Tene Wells ■ Onyx Culinary Collective

There was a time, explains Tene Wells, co-founder of Onyx Culinary Collective, when the African-American community followed traditional immigrant methods for financing a business: community members funding community members.

But that model faded, leaving traditional lending systems as the main avenue for black financial success. “The white man’s model doesn’t work for us,” says Wells, citing high interest rates and the burden of debt. Taking inspiration from a tribe of African women in Moshi, Tanzania, who taught themselves collective micro-financing, she’s using a similar model to assist food entrepreneurs here in the Twin Cities.

With co-founder Lachelle Cunningham (who has since moved on to other endeavors), Wells has helped guide Onyx Collective Minneapolis to prominence via soul food pop-ups—most notably their monthly events at North Minneapolis’ Breaking Bread Cafe.

Using that same collective financing technique—an up-front investment, with all profits going back into the treasury to fund future endeavors—the chefs of the collective (currently Kenneth Jordan, Bershawn Medlock, Jason Leibel, and Vaughn Larry) are working toward sustainable food businesses both individually as well as collectively.

Teóna Washington ■ Cajun Twist

Teóna Washington // Photo by Becca Dilley

Teóna Washington // Photo by Becca Dilley

Though she’s a native Minnesotan, Teóna Washington says “her story” is that of Disney’s “The Princess and The Frog,” where the protagonist Tiana (pronounced the same way as Washington’s first name) dreams of one day opening the finest restaurant in New Orleans. The “twist” (you’re following, right?) is that she’s opening a Minnesota restaurant with a New Orleans heart. 

Washington’s dad, a carpenter by trade and an enthusiastic cook in his own right, moved the family to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help flood victims rebuild their homes. While he banged away on boards and nails, Teóna spent six years banging out gumbo and jambalaya in clubs and restaurants on Bourbon Street. When she returned to Minnesota, her cooking took on a life of its own with endless requests for her Cajun stylings. Soon enough, just like the other Tiana, it became clear she needed a place of her own. 

Cajun Twist, due to open after Thanksgiving at the Theodore Wirth Parkway Trailhead, is poised to be a culinary mashup of Washington’s New Orleans inspirations with a Minnesota flourish that acknowledges the state’s complexity. 

“Minnesota is so diverse—it really is a melting pot. There are so many blended families here—it reminds me of New Orleans. Gumbo is about everybody bringing what they had. People who weren’t even supposed to be together. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish here.” 

On the Cajun Twist menu you’ll find items such as “Jambosas,” a jambalaya-stuffed samosa inspired in part by the Somali dumpling, and Yaka Mein, another New Orleans cult favorite fusion dish.

Her cooking at Cajun Twist will be unmistakably soul, Washington says. “To me, soul food is food that’s been loved on for a long time. I cook my red beans and rice for up to 12 hours, and you can taste that. It sounds so cliche, but soul food is food that has a little bit of someone’s soul in it.”

Mateo Mackbee ■ Model Citizen

Mateo Mackbee // Photo by Becca Dilley

Mateo Mackbee // Photo by Becca Dilley

Beyond chefs’ standard wish to get their hands on the freshest products possible, many dream of having a true farm-to-table restaurant. Very few, however, actually pack up and move to the farm in order to get it done. 

Mateo Mackbee has done just that, and with yet another hope attached to his endeavor: That more young people, especially young people of color, can get a sense of what’s possible in the world.

“Out here there’s nothing to worry about—no stigma, no pressures of other kids, of being in the ’hood, of walking past liquor stores,” he says. “Maybe they’ll see someone that looks like me, and it will open up other possibilities than what they deal with on a daily basis.” 

Model Citizen operates out of Goat Ridge Brewing in New London, Minnesota, population 1,376. “I’m the only black person here,” Mackbee laughs. With his business and life partner Erin Lucas, Mackbee farms a plot of land about 15 minutes from the kitchen. Open since spring of this year, they’re seeing what’s possible, what the land will produce. Come next planting season, their vision will get much larger, and include kids from surrounding areas with large Somali and Latino populations, including Willmar and the Twin Cities, working on the farm and in the kitchen. 

His is “heritage” cooking—the kind where the produce dictates the final product. Menus change daily but revolve around elevated comfort food made with stealthy classical cooking techniques that the menu doesn’t crow about. Mackbee’s mom is from New Orleans, so there will be jambalaya, yes, but also more Minnesota stylings like a killer pot roast, which he calls “poor man’s short ribs,” and a “celebration of peas,” if that’s what the land is generous with at the moment.

The Future: Plant-Based Soul & More

Nicole Pacini, social media and branding manager for Onyx Collective, thinks Minnesota could support a number of soul food restaurants. And it’s true—since our northerly state isn’t tethered to regional culinary demands, the possibilities are open. Though she was born and raised in Mississippi and grew up on
traditional southern soul food like smothered chicken, Pacini has turned to a mostly plant-based diet and she’s looking to chefs like Cunningham to allay her cravings. 

“The future is more like what Lachelle is doing,” says Pacini. “She’s foraging frickin’ nettles and things. We have to create what we want it to look like, and people will definitely come.” 

Gerard Klass, one of the most prominent faces of the Minnesota soul food movement with Soul Bowl, has also been a corporate chef at fusion-cooking juggernaut Crave for a decade. He’s taken all he’s learned in that setting, and is applying modern cooking and service techniques to the soul food he so dearly loves and grew up on in Indiana. He notes that soul food hasn’t evolved the way other Minnesota cuisines inevitably and comfortably do. But, he says, we’re on the precipice. It’s unavoidable—and the rise to national prominence of figures like chef Justin Sutherland of Handsome Hog and Pearl & the Thief is a sign that change is on the way. 

“Like any other part of black culture,” says Klass, “it gets sought after eventually, just because of the purity of the art.”