People Issue 2016: Lachelle Cunningham, the people's chef

Serving her community through the power of food.

Serving her community through the power of food.

The City Pages People Issue celebrates ordinary folks who do extraordinary things. Though their triumphs are rarely acknowledged, they make the Twin Cities a better place.

The West Broadway corridor is a food desert. Despite myriad fast food joints and convenience stores, there is very little by way of nutrition. Lachelle Cunningham, executive chef of Breaking Bread Café, is charged with rectifying that.

Breaking Bread is run by Appetite for Change. The café may look unassuming. Its mission is anything but: to provide a nutritious gathering place for the community and job training for residents. It wants to be David to the Goliaths of fast food who hold sway over this underserved part of the city.

This is no easy task. North Minneapolis has traditionally been without much access to fresh produce or scratch cooking. And just because you bring it doesn't mean people will instantly embrace it or see themselves as deserving. Cunningham says that people still occasionally walk into her bright, welcoming space and ask, "Am I allowed to be in here?"

The cafe, with its espresso machine, vegan sausage, and tofu veggie breakfast tacos is a far cry from the greasy air of nearby Burger King or Hook Fish and Chicken.

Cunningham is perfect for the job. She began planning special events for the United Way, then started throwing elaborate dinner parties at home. These led to catering jobs.

"I'm a caterer at heart," she says. "Which isn't just about food. I'm a caterer to what people need and want, too. I'm talking about the root of the word."

These days, she uses that ethic to train restaurant workers for job readiness. Teaching people who have never set foot in a professional kitchen is an epic challenge, but helping people find a livelihood through food is a calling.

Her culinary wheelhouse is comfort — soul food inflected with Caribbean, Spanish, and Creole touches. "I'm lucky, because I've had a lot of cultural experiences that people who look like me don't always get," she says, pointing at the color of her skin.

She peppers the menu with the French technique she learned in culinary school, while finding ways to lighten the conventional richness of traditional soul food. There's a breakfast salad with avocado and black beans. Caribbean slaw takes the place of French fries. Turkey and veggie burgers stand in for beef.

Cunningham has dreams beyond the café. She fantasizes about a food hub with urban farming, aquaponics, a co-op— avenues for more access to good food, and the better health it promotes.

"Life can be painful to body and spirit," she says. "But we eat to comfort ourselves — spiritually, culturally, almost psychologically. And that will always have me hooked."

Click here to read the rest of our People Issue 2016 profiles.