“American cuisine was created by black people in kitchens,” says Tene Wells. She’s a member of Onyx Culinary Collective (OCC), a group dedicated to promoting and advancing African American chefs and culinarians in creating their own successful businesses.
Wells is OCC’s business manager and—on Wednesday at least—lemon zester. This was prep night for the collective’s June 8 pop-up dinner, which will honor the culinary tastes of Prince.
As Wells zests in the Breaking Bread Cafe kitchen, other members of the collective finish cutting sweet potatoes, photograph the growing pile of lemons, ready tubs of chicken, and dish up salmon cakes they brought from home to serve as snacks for the group.
Prince plays loud through the speakers.
“We’ve lost recognition for what we did,” Wells continues, “and we want to bring back honor to black chefs.”
The collective was formed last August by Lachelle Cunningham, who has since departed to run her own catering company. Cunningham brought together blacks chefs and cooks—many of whom are also artists—to discuss how they might collaborate and forward their culinary dreams.
For Bershawn “Bernie” Medlock, that dream is a dessert truck, and catering parties with her cakes. For Nicole Pacini, it’s honing her skill in and passion for food photography. For Kenneth Jordan, it’s a food truck. For Vaughn Larry, it’s the “first time I’ve worked with this many black cooks.”
This sense of shared ownership and community fuels the group. Wells, who’s worked in economic development in various capacities, notes that Onyx truly is a collective. Each member has invested $500 in the venture—as well as their time and expertise—and shares duties. Profits are added to the initial seed money.
This model has worked for centuries, here in the United States and around the world, particularly in immigrant communities and communities of color. Often, traditional forms of lending and economic development were created and are perpetuated to leave out those very communities. Wells says, for example, that the US Bank a block from Breaking Bread has never made a commercial loan to support a business in the neighborhood. “It’s a glorified check-cashing place,” she says.
After a successful pop-up dinner during the Super Bowl (just search #wherethesoulfoodatmpls), OCC decided to hold a summer series of pop-up dinners called The Evolution of African Cuisine. The first will be Friday’s, which will offer three menu options based on the foods Prince loved to eat—both as a kid and as an adult. A July 13 event is all about family reunions, how families come together to pass down their knowledge and lineage, usually through the medium of food. August 10 honors the blending of African and indigenous cuisines, while September 14 will explore the Green Book.
The group chooses themes together and slowly builds out the menu through conversations. (When Medlock offered up her salmon cakes, Wells took one bite and said, “We should serve these at the family reunion pop-up.”) All meals will happen at Breaking Bread Cafe in north Minneapolis (1210 W. Broadway), the collective’s home base. There, they have access to a commercial kitchen and services from NEON, as well as the visibility of the cafe.
By November, OCC hopes to raise $50,000 through their pop-ups, catering, and Kickstarter. “We recognize we’re investing in ourselves,” Wells says. “We know there will be a return.” She hopes an investor will be interested, and she’s already had some initial conversations. Until that day, OCC is an experiment, says Jordan. “We want to see how long it will last.”
“We work incredibly well together,” says young chef George, who’s surgically slicing peels from lemons. His sentiment is echoed by everyone else, whether outright in words, or in their easy back-and-forth preparing buckets of sweet potatoes.
OCC wants to use their dinners as teaching opportunities, not just around the evolution of African cuisine in America, but about the state of soul food today. While the Twin Cities has a few dedicated soul food restaurants, there aren’t enough to offer up a full spectrum of the cuisine. (This is due largely to the very systemic factors OCC is combating.)
Wells hopes to serve white-tablecloth soul food, and to that end, future pop-ups will feature wine and other alcoholic beverages. Plus, every dish is made from scratch—even the macaroni in the macaroni and cheese—to amp up the deliciousness and the nutrition. OCC has spoken with the folks at PinKU and with Hmong chefs in town about future collaborations, too.
“Our food is about the merger of all people of color,” Wells explains. It’s a natural evolution of American cuisine and soul food both. And why should banks and traditional financing options stymie that progress? Reserve your tickets for OCC’s pop-ups; support black-owned and -operated businesses in the community.
And share some damn fine food with friends and neighbors.