Twin Cities Chefs Serve Southern Cooking and Social Change in St. Joseph

Now in central Minnesota: New Orleans flair, French-style pastries, and an anti-racism mission

 

Photo by Taycier Elhindi

When Twin Cities restaurant veterans Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas moved up to the central Minnesota town of St. Joseph, they didn’t just start new businesses. The partners (in the kitchen and in life) actualized several culinary dreams. With their jointly owned Krewe, Flour & Flower, and Model Citizen, Inc., the two Minnesota natives have created a restaurant, bakery, and social justice initiative in a town of about 7,000 residents.

To the task, each brings about a decade of restaurant experience: Mackbee has cooked for local celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern and Wolfgang Puck restaurants; Lucas attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Traveling to St. Joseph, I wanted to both try their food and understand the social mission behind their decision to launch a dining empire here in small-town Minnesota, where they moved two years ago.

“This is a space where people can come in and see what the world really looks like,” Mackbee says of Krewe, a restaurant that locals have described as the first Black-owned business in St. Joseph—“not this monolithic idea of what they want it to be.”

Krewe

Chef Mackbee’s dream, Krewe, is a heritage restaurant serving the traditional Louisiana-style dishes his mom, a New Orleans native, would make for him growing up in Bloomington, Minnesota: jambalaya, gumbo, catfish, and hushpuppies.

The window-lined dining room and bar combines rustic charm (a tin ceiling, antique beer taps, trellis-etched glasses) with modern gold accents and dark wood. A marble chef’s counter overlooks an oyster display and open kitchen. Upbeat jazz music plays throughout the dinner service, creating an authentic New Orleans vibe.

Its atmosphere is also meant to feel safe, welcoming, and familiar to central Minnesota’s diverse communities. “It’s people of a bunch of different races and socio-economic backgrounds, shades, and sexual orientations all in this one space,” Mackbee says. “They’re surrounded by food, and they’re having a good time. I think those are the kinds of things that can start the conversations that we want to have.”

Mackbee and Lucas left the Twin Cities in order to own their own restaurants, but also to confront rural racism, connect with minorities in the area, and re-establish land-based food traditions.

St. Joseph isn’t known for cultural diversity—its population is more than 90% white. “We see the Trump flags and the confederate flags on the back of trucks driving up and down the street,” notes Mackbee. One outright expression of racism were the words “white power” spray-painted on a porta-potty during Krewe’s construction. Stearns County, where St. Joseph is located, has become more diverse in recent decades with the arrival of East African and Latin American immigrants, and the region has seen flare-ups of xenophobia.

Meanwhile, the Black community has long used food as a form of activism, ever since arriving here on slave ships in the 1600s—braiding seeds and grains into their hair and creating meals out of scraps. “I’ve come to find out, at least through the Black people that I’ve talked to, that they’ve been waiting for something like this,” Mackbee says. “They come here, and it’s the music and the art on the wall.”

To value food as more than just a means for survival is a beautiful way to honor the quiet contributions of many Black lives eager to establish and belong to enduring communities. “What I get a lot is ‘This reminds me of my grandmother’s food.’ It speaks to their soul.”

It’s unique from any other Southern food I’ve had in Minnesota, and not watered down. With each savory bite, you can taste the years of tradition these dishes hold and the emphasis on high-quality, local ingredients.

The hushpuppies are lightly spiced. The jambalaya base is thick and buttery with the perfect marriage of umami and acidity, plus a little kick at the end. The dinner rolls alone are worth a trip. Soft inside, flaky out, and served warm with a slather of honey butter, they’re astounding.

Dishes like the shrimp toast, smoked duck, and rice noodles bear influences from Asian flavors such as curry, Thai basil, and tom yum—an unexpected, but mouthwatering, fusion.

To establish a safe space, Mackbee and Lucas also work hard to value the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. During my visit, I witnessed a team of chefs truly excited to be where they were. The chaos and high tension that often plays out behind the scenes at restaurants seemed nonexistent.

Flour & Flower

Chef Lucas’s vision, Flour & Flower, stems from her love of pastry, plus a book she read as a child about flowers’ ability to manipulate one’s behavior. “Marigolds will make you tell the truth, lavender will calm you,” she explains. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Lucas met Mackbee in 2014 while they were both working at Corinne DeCamp’s now-closed Mozza Mia in Edina.

Flour & Flower’s small, cottage-style bakery serves French-style pastries, artisan bread, pies, and cookies, along with a rotating lunch menu for takeout, or for enjoying on Krewe’s patio, just steps away. The pastries and pies change seasonally to accommodate local produce. Locally sourced bouquets are sold at the bakery, as well, hence the name.

Though Flour & Flower has been open a short time, Lucas’s baking has drawn crowds from all around Minnesota as well as regulars from St. Joseph. At 7 a.m. on a weekend, you’ll find a line of enlivened guests waiting to pick up their favorite treats and coffee. Some share their experience on social media, others chat behind masks about what they’re planning to order. The pastry lineup changes regularly, so it is best to go with a couple of friends and try a little bit of everything while it’s available. The croissants, both seasonal and classic, are perfectly flaky and buttery.

“Baking is my gift to the world,” Lucas says. “I can have a message behind it and a purpose behind it. There’s a big Muslim population just between here and St. Cloud. They’re just starting to come out to the bakery, so I think that’s what we’re meant to be doing out here.”

Model Citizen

Before opening in St. Joseph, Mackbee and Lucas used the Model Citizen name for a restaurant in neighboring New London, which closed in the spring. What remains, however, is Model Citizen, Inc., a nonprofit organization that teaches people of color about farming and the history of the food we eat.

The teaching takes place on Mackbee and Lucas’s farm, where they grow and harvest produce for their restaurants. Throughout the farming season, groups from urban areas visit the land to experience the growing process from start to finish.

One of the most vital steps on the journey to a true and welcoming community is to create spaces for people of color where they are not normally seen. “I would love to be able to educate people, especially kids, about the true history of Black culture around food, gathering, what the earth really has meant to us as a people, and how we’ve gotten away from it,” Mackbee says.

The rural setting, he points out, re-establishes a connection between Black people and the land. “We were the original farmers in the United States, and we did a ton of the work, especially in the South. Because the government took away our opportunity to farm and basically shoved us into the cities, we’ve kind of gotten away from the land.

“I want kids to understand where our food comes from,” he continues. “It’s not the corner store with 25-cent bags of chips. It’s understanding where a tomato comes from and how a potato is grown.” (The farmland of Model Citizen, Inc., is being restructured, and Mackbee and Lucas expect to welcome groups in the spring of 2021.)

Though the couple may not have expected to be where they are today, it seems like they’ve found their place in history. “These places have picked us,” Mackbee says. “We never sought out to make food in these small towns. It was always to grow food in the country and create space in the city for the kids there, to have this transfer back and forth.”

He confides, “I don’t think in my wildest dreams I would have seen us having a restaurant in a town of 7,000 people. I would’ve said, ‘No way! How are we going to make that work?’ But it did.”

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