Hail to the Chef

I USED TO GO around the corner to the Chef Cafe, one of the last great eateries to weather the storm of fast-food chains on the Minneapolis south side. The air inside would be slick with the same alchemy of grease, smoke and heat off the evening grill that had graced the air in this joint for decades. Two kids in the corner would be racking up points on the pinball, joking through a mouthful of fries, while a half-dozen customers, keeping time with their stomachs, polished off big platters of barbecued wings and house-special catfish. Between supper and bar rush, one of the fry cooks would be stuck on a hum, mopping tile. Get off your butt and gimme a hand here, he'd bark to the waitress. You wouldn't hear the teasing in his voice if you hadn't, just then, seen him wink. Chuck owned this place.

It was a good routine, an anchor in an era of transience and drift. But on September 18, a Monday that broke like any other with the morning staff yawning off sleep in their aprons, the Chef gave up the ghost. Brad Manos, who started flipping burgers there over a decade ago, at age 15, already tells the story of that morning like a myth that helps explain the mysteries lurking in this world. "I came in here, a day like any other, to open up the place," he said last week. "But then I noticed the cash drawer wasn't stocked as usual. Chuck Cohn, the owner, ducked in about 10 minutes later, in a strange mood. He turned to me with tears in his eyes and all he said was, 'We're down.' And so we were, down and out. Closing up shop. I guess he was getting out the only way he knew how, in a flash, like a trick disappearing act. A half-hour later, buyers were clearing out the smoker and fryers and the whole place was history."

The reasons for locking up the Chef are as varied and hard to nail down as the reasons that fueled its success. His boss suffered from plain old burnout, figures Manos, who along with his brother recently leased the space with plans to start up a new cafe--The Southside Grill--next month. Cohn, at his home out in Plymouth, said as much last Thursday: it wasn't his health, it wasn't a lack of money, it was just time to move on. He mentions changes in the neighborhood around Franklin and Chicago that, in his words, "no good businessman would in his sound mind wish for," and lists off four shootings, a fatal one just two weeks back, that made it tough to keep his heart in the old place.

But this is not so much an obituary as an elegy. The Chef was around so long its very walls reeked stories. It opened for business back in November 1945, just after the war. Its first owner, a serviceman with ambition and a veteran's stipend, plastered over the rough beam walls, wired the fans, and tacked down the speckled flooring that the staff, until last month, still mopped between meals. Back then, the remnants of Franklin's turn-of-the-century residents, many of them Jewish and Romanian, still kept a few shops and garages along the avenue, saving for a piece of the dream in Minneapolis's up-and-coming districts to the west.

By the mid-1970s, when Chuck bought the place, Franklin Avenue had been swept from its southernmost city-border status to just another urban thoroughfare. The theater two blocks down, where Chuck saw his first moving matinee picture, is now a weekend hip-hop joint for teens in cornrows and baggies. The block just west of here, where his grandfather kept stables, is now a mini-mall illuminated all night by neon. The annual pow-wow across the street in Peavey Park, hosted by the nearby American Indian Center, filled the Chef with the sounds of drumming in July, and Abbott-Northwestern Hospital, founded a century ago to serve immigrant women and children, provided a steady keen of sirens all year round. Through all the changing times, the Chef's jukebox still played the Golden Oldies; its pastry cases could have fetched hundreds at auction as antiques.

When I went around the corner to the Chef one night late last winter, I found Chuck taking a load off between meals, killing time and keeping tabs on the small talk in his usual habit. His hours didn't vary much, breakfast to lunch, lunch to supper, and the air along his route from kitchen to booth and back was stale with heat. He was catching a snatch of the night's doings from a couple of the young cops who walked beats down the block. As with other customers, most of whom were regulars, Chuck knew which of their sons lived in Baltimore, which niece got married in Dayton.

The three ceiling fans were dizzy with speed. Against the walls, every few minutes, police lights strobed in long red streaks from the curb outside. This section of Franklin, like most nights, was packed with the usual suspects: whores and crackheads, teen-agers with the Miranda code memorized. Two wired-looking guys ducked inside, one rapped his knuckles on the counter and yelled over to Chuck, "Gimme some motherfuckin' catfish, man." And make it, added his buddy, to go.

"Well," Chuck answered, rising from the booth, "we got fried catfish, we got broiled catfish, we even got raw catfish. But we don't fix motherfuckin' catfish." Chuck's face, under the fly-specked lights, was a fine lacework of capillaries. His forearms were spoiled with burns, like a biography of the grind behind the grill. What he asked, in return for this hard-earned record, was a bit of respect, no inebriated stunts that might disturb his customers' peace. In Chuck's two-room, scratched and stained domain, there were a few rules: no checks; "please pay money at time when ordering" for carry-out; flush when finished; no cursing at the boss.

Specials were tacked on the wall, on huge white banners with lettering in primary blues and reds. The menu itself wasn't trustworthy; of the over 100 items listed, Chuck was bound to be out of half at any given time. The plastic menu coverings were curled and stained. Printing costs run high these days, and what was the use? Ordering was a ritual of request-and-rejection the waitresses took pride in mastering. If you cared to call a day ahead, Chuck was happy to fix a pot of bean soup or thaw out the T-bones he'd been saving. His coffee was weak enough to stay awhile and talk over without getting edgy.

When the motherfuckin' catfish was ready and bagged, Chuck handed it out the front door to the waiting pair. I couldn't quite hear through the glass what their brief conversation was about, but the white winter breaths of three men, exchanging a compromise between pleasantry and grudge, floated a moment between them before vanishing.

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