Growing up, Lachelle Cunningham’s mother made traditional meals — meat, vegetable, starch. Cunningham’s father “used every spice you could think of.” Her stepmother would look into the cabinet and create something from whatever she found. The activity always seemed to be in the kitchens, even at her grandmother’s house, and that’s where she wanted to be.
After Cunningham and her brother were old enough to be latchkey kids, they made up their own concoctions. “It was not good,” she says. “Lunch meat and veggies in a pot with water and we called it soup. We learned how not to cook. But I would remember what to not do next time.”
Eventually Cunningham’s concoctions tasted better. Her specialties were banana pudding, custard from scratch, meringues. “I didn’t have money, but I was able to make gifts of food.”
At 15, she worked her first “real” job at McDonald’s. A series of office jobs and non-profit work followed —United Way for five years, Thrivent for five years. She learned business management, financial reporting, event planning. At Thrivent, she helped put together events ranging from a curling tournament to a boat cruise, potlucks to holiday parties.
After her first son was born 14 years ago, Cunningham says, her hormones seemed to cause a physical shift. “My palate changed,” she says. “I fell in love with food. Smells were intense. I was curious about experimenting with food, which I never did before.”
Her dinner parties grew to more than 20 guests, serving varied menus from elaborate fondues to an everything-bacon-wrapped theme she called Baconapolis. People began to ask her to cater graduations, weddings, and corporate lunches.
A few years ago, Cunningham got serious. While raising two boys, she simultaneously worked on a culinary degree at the Art Institutes International Minnesota, got licensed as a food provider, and began to teach cooking classes.
In 2011, she launched Chelles’ Kitchen LLC, a full-service catering and event company that offers restaurant training and consulting. Cunningham was advised to develop a specialty. “But I wanted to do everything, not get pigeon-holed,” she says.
“I developed a curriculum I called ‘Comfort Foods Around the World,’ so I could do globally inspired comfort food from different regions.”
The effervescent Cunningham continues to want to do everything as an entrepreneur. She is known for her work helping to build the menu and kitchen operations of Breaking Bread Café, a program of Appetite for Change. Since her recent departure as executive chef there, she is relaunching Chelles’ Kitchen and offering the ServSafe food manager certification class through Neighborhood Economic Opportunity Network (NEON).
She will become a food business training instructor with Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) as well as culinary instructor at St. Paul College. Her long-term goal is to get certified in nutrition to further her work in educating people about the healing nutrients in food.
Cunningham has developed a cooking class called “Healthy Roots: Reclaiming the Narrative on Soul Food,” which she offers around the Twin Cities. Currently she is developing relationships with local community venues to regularly offer the class. She is developing a local radio program of the same title to expand this discussion around food and health.
Finding solutions to health disparities is an issue close to her heart. Cunningham’s curriculum is designed to break down barriers and demystify the idea that it is hard to eat healthy. With her social capital and recognition in the industry, she is involved in initiatives to help African-American chefs get access to capital, build strategic plans, and walk through the steps of starting a food business.
The Twin Cities is unusual among large cities in its lack of a prominent soul food restaurant. Because of economic disparities, many Black and African-American Minnesota chefs own catering businesses, instead of full-service restaurants. Cunningham’s mission is to help grow the capacity of chefs in her community to not only cook but to build the infrastructure around a sustainable business.
Cunningham is also starting work to lift up visibility of women in the restaurant business, alongside Kim Bartmann. It is partly a reaction to a local magazine cover in 2015 that featured 15 top chefs; nearly all of them were white men — and none of them were women.
“Women, especially women of color, tend to be overlooked. There is great diversity of chefs in the Twin Cities,” Cunningham says. “I intend to bring more attention to this space, so more people can see the enormous talent we have to offer.”
written by Lachelle Cunningham
Healthy Roots is more than just a cooking class; it is my food philosophy about reclaiming the narrative of soul food.
My African-American community has been marginalized in a cycle of systemic racism that bleeds directly into our food, educational, health, and economic systems, creating disparities that lead to myriad environmental and social injustices.
For me, food is my niche. Food touches every part of our lives. Food nourishes us physically. It comforts us emotionally. It influences us mentally. Food is embedded in our spiritual customs. It reflects our society and culture.
When we say “soul food,” we are digging deeper than the countless cliches and stereotypes. Soul food is really the vehicle for our unification; it connects us on a deeper level. When bread is communally broken, magic happens that brings people together and levels the playing field. Yes, it’s about filling people with delicious foods. But it is also about reconnecting with our food — knowing where it comes from, and knowing the history of our food system.
Healthy Roots is my curriculum dedicated to reclaiming the narrative about our food culture, specifically soul food. Soul food is my healing work.
What can we uncover about the wisdom of our ancestors? They knew which plants were good for nourishing our bodies and which plants were good for healing ailments – it wasn’t all about deep fried this and ham hock that. It was about creating something sustainable out of meager resources.
Healthy Roots is my body of work to show how our thinking and behaviors have been manipulated for financial gain. It is about understanding that we have always been plant-based, and that plant-based food heals. It is about knowing the bounty of vitamins and minerals, and what they do in our bodies. It is about recognizing that our food comes from the abundance of healthy soil, and not from factory or laboratory farms of pharmaceutically infused and genetically modified ingredients.
I believe it is time for us to understand how the food culture created by commodity-driven markets is why we are predominantly sick, tired, and broke.
Healthy Roots is about connecting all of these factors. Ultimately, my mission is to impact people through food and to normalize healthy eating in my community. It is to impact the economy of the Twin Cities African-American community and the greater community by educating ourselves, as well as developing food enterprises that generate revenue, increase jobs, and raise property values — which addresses economic disparities.
My community has called me to do this work and I intend to deliver.