You're on Your Own with the Ham

Tony Nelson

Sahr Menzs scrubs grease off a frying pan while a muezzin chants prayers over a loudspeaker. The melodic Arabic intonations clash with the clanking of pots and pans in the steamy dishwater. A student in a cooking class at this mosque, Menzs says that even though he isn't Muslim, the prayers sound soothing to him.

It's Jumah, the Friday prayer service, at the Masjid An'Nur, a modest Nation of Islam mosque on Lyndale Avenue just off Broadway in north Minneapolis. Separated from the kitchen by a short passageway, the prayer room overflows with an eclectic congregation: African American women sit Indian-style reading the Koran, fidgety children by their sides; solo African and Arabic men bow their heads in silent reflection; a twentysomething white male wears a Clippers jersey and a backward cap; a middle-aged black man kneels in a lilac jilbab robe with matching kufi skullcap.

Back in the kitchen, Menzs may have said a little prayer of thanks himself. Wearing his own tall chef's hat and apron, he had just fried up some blackened catfish and garlic peas for the final exam of his cooking class. His teacher, Rick Granberry, made him redo the dish, only passing him after his second try.

Over six weeks, "Cooking for Hire" takes students through basic cooking skills along with instruction on everything from writing a professional résumé to learning how to cooperate with others in the workplace. "In a lot of workplaces you are mixing Somalis, Asians, African Americans, whites with all kinds of personalities and beliefs," says the 45-year-old Granberry. "At some point there is going to be some confusion. This is a controlled setting where people can start to work out some of those differences."

Granberry himself is not a Muslim, nor are the majority of his students, nearly 50 percent of whom are referrals from welfare-to-work programs. After the course, graduates like Menzs go on to on-site training that may last for up to six months at restaurants such as Famous Dave's or the Countryside Kitchen. Today, the program has more than 30 former students now working full-time in the industry. Closer to the community, Granberry and company also periodically sell cut-rate takeout from the mosque's back door--BBQ pit chicken, sweet potatoes, veggies, and pop, all for $3!--the results of a day's lessons.

A Wednesday morning finds the aspiring chef gingerly cutting some carrots with the aid of Diane Johnson, a ruddy-faced teaching assistant. "You'll get it. Ain't nobody better than you," she says encouragingly. "That's the way you gotta think. That's the way you have to cook.

"Don't raise your knife higher than your knuckles," she continues. "Then you'll really cut those fingers!"

Menzs still seems a little unsure of himself; he hesitates most when Granberry looks over his shoulder.

A veteran chef and former restaurant owner, Granberry is a fast talker and something of a tough-love teacher with a thick neck and a thin mustache. "I'm the one-man show who takes care of business around here," he says.

In his most recent kitchen undertaking, Granberry ran his own American-style restaurant and blues joint, Snoodles, formerly on Nicollet Avenue and 14th Street in south Minneapolis. While that venture went under, giving way to the New Delhi, the speedy slicing-and-dicing entrepreneur didn't lose his hustle. A friend at the Masjid told him about the mosque's vision for cooking classes, which soon gave rise to the joint project. Granberry's endeavor has gone on to find numerous backers, including the McKnight Foundation, allowing some students to qualify for grants to reduce the $500 tuition.

Even with only two students in the current class--five others couldn't cut the mustard--Granberry keeps up a high-gear pace, briskly moving between Menzs and the other student, 24-year-old Shayla Baynes, who cooks up two varieties of roux over an industrial stove. The steam from a boiling pot emits smells of paprika and spices that wash over the kitchen's somewhat acrid, greasy-spoon aroma. Baynes, who hopes to open her own Creole restaurant one day, says that she is preparing a Cajun sauce and beef gravy.

Just then, Granberry pops up and asks her to measure a quart of water and get some chicken stock, only to dash back to Menzs with a series of orders: "Okay, show me a dice, a cube, and a julienne."

While Baynes has extensive restaurant experience, the 26-year-old Menzs didn't so much as pop a burrito in a microwave before he saw an ad for Cooking for Hire. The longtime St. Paul resident, who had been looking for a full-time job for months, hopes to get a kitchen position at a nice steakhouse after he finishes his on-site training.

For now, though, there are potato cubes to cut. Johnson nods and says, "Hmmm. These would be good in a potato soup. Yep, if we only had some bacon."

"No way. Cannot have it on the premises," Menzs responds dryly. Though the mosque is proud of the outreach its cooking program offers amid non-Muslims, pork in a mosque would simply not do.

"Well, maybe a beer cheese soup, then," Johnson jokes on.

Later, a man with a wide grin strolls in and shakes his head when he gets a whiff of the grilled mushroom hamburgers and seasoned fries the students have cooked up for their lunch.

"Man, why do ya'll have to cook this good food in here during Ramadan?!" he groans.

With hours of fasting still ahead of him, the man shuffles on to the pink-carpeted worship room for midday prayers.

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