Step inside Café Cerés, and you’re immediately greeted by the aromas of Middle Eastern spices, za’atar, cumin, dukkah, and, of course, Turkish coffee. Nestled in Minneapolis’ Linden Hills neighborhood, the space is warm and inviting with natural light pouring in from the massive floor-to-ceiling windows. The former Penny’s Coffee building is now owned and operated by Penny’s veteran pastry chef Shawn McKenzie, and is a fresh take on a classic, upscale coffee house. It’s the perfect starting point for a sunny afternoon spent exploring all the local businesses France and 44th has to offer.
Behind a counter displaying enticing croissants, Turkish bagels, and an array of cookies are two gorgeous copper ibriks (small, long-handled coffee pots for brewing Turkish coffee), part of a coffee program led by Casey Underkofler. Beverage-wise, the spiced vanilla latte is a refreshing take on a classic. The ras el hanout and dukkah lattes are both must-tries. Combining spices like cumin and sumac, both native to the Red Sea Region, with fresh, bright herbs and date syrup in place of traditional sugar, these are luscious, ambrosial drinks you’ll come back for again and again.
Through a window looking into the kitchen, you can glimpse the organized commotion that is McKenzie’s pastry operation. The pistachio croissant is a must. With crushed pistachios soaked in syrup and layered into the center of a perfectly flaky croissant, it’s sweet, nutty, crisp, and golden brown on the outside, airy and buttery with perfect layers on the inside. The chocolate tahini and zephyr cookies embody deep, rich, nutty flavors and have the perfect combination of a crunchy outer layer with a soft inside. They easily deserve a spot in the Twin Cities’ cookie hall of fame.
The wonderful Turkish bagel is soft and pillowy, with the perfect pull when you bite into it. Slathered with tangy labneh (Greek yogurt) and sprinkled with the umami of za’atar herbs and spices, it brought me back to my childhood growing up in an Arab-American household. On weekends and during Ramadan, I would join my dad in the kitchen, cooking goat stew with cumin and dried limes; basmati rice with sumac, saffron, and golden raisins; and ruz bin leban (slow-cooked rice with milk pudding) with fresh cardamom pods. I loved sitting at the kitchen island chatting while my dad stood at the stove, swirling a copper ibrik, adding cardamom pods and sugar to his nightly coffee.
Like myself, Shawn McKenzie grew up in the kitchen. She was born to two Black parents and adopted by a Black father and white mother, in Olympia, Washington. “Growing up, we had to find a way to relate to our dad,” McKenzie explains. “For me, it was food and fishing.” For the first 19 years of her life, she cooked and baked with her father, including at a senior living facility where he was head chef. She fondly remembers Sunday dinners of fried chicken and macaroni salad, and inherited her father’s use of food as a way to nurture others.
McKenzie faced the same challenges that many young Black Americans face: “At a very young age I remember my parents telling me, ‘You’re going to have to work harder and do better,’ and that conversation stuck with me.”
At 19, McKenzie moved to Oregon to attend culinary school and spent time in Eugene working for chef Jeanette Lewis, an Iranian immigrant, cooking traditional Iranian dishes like spanakopita and samosas to be sold at local grocery stores. “That’s where I really learned about Middle Eastern food, developed a love for crazy amounts of herbs, and cultivated my knowledge of spices and seasonings,” she says.
A few years later, McKenzie found herself in Minneapolis taking on the pastry program for three Isaac Becker restaurants (112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, and Burch) with the help of chef Daniel del Prado—and, eventually, Penny’s. During McKenzie’s time at Penny’s, she went on a culinary tour of the Red Sea Region, not only learning more about the culture but fully embracing it. She brought this knowledge of the spices, flavors, and unique style of cooking back to Minnesota and beautifully infused it into Penny’s pastry program.
In late 2020, the Penny’s team made the same painful decision as so many other independent restaurants, and closed their Linden Hills location. However, it wasn’t long before del Prado, McKenzie, and Underkofler took the reins and created a Café Cerés menu that McKenzie describes as “encompassing all of the flavors along the coast of the Red Sea.”
Moving from the Pacific Northwest to Minneapolis brought a cultural awakening into McKenzie’s life. Last May, when the world turned its eyes to Minneapolis and George Floyd, it became a very different place. “I never really cried over anything; I’d even put my father’s death in that, but I cried then,” McKenzie says. It pushed her to recognize the role she plays as a Black woman in the traditionally white, traditionally male hospitality industry: “I look down at my feet, and I keep going. … I never tried to look beyond white culture and reach for African American hands.”
Now, McKenzie hopes she can be the person her father was to her, for other young, Black chefs. Along with being a role model and a leader in and out of the kitchen, she strives to do her best work. “It’s in those moments when you have to dig deep,” she says. “When I have an idea after a 12- to 14-hour day, I know it’s worth trying.” Pushing through pain, McKenzie feels most connected to her father. His initials are tattooed on her hands as a reminder of why she’s here and where she started.
As Café Cerés grows, McKenzie is looking to create more menu items, space, community, memories, and opportunities for people in pastry. The pandemic has been exceptionally trying on the hospitality industry, and the world of pastry is “being evaluated,” McKenzie says. “There was a point when, sadly, I was planning on not having a job in pastry anymore. It felt like maybe the world doesn’t really need croissants.” Even if we don’t need them, if they’re from Café Cerés, we definitely want them.
3509 W. 44th St., Minneapolis