ST. JOSEPH, Minn. – The Krewe restaurant is a tribute to Mary Mackbee, a former high school principal who raised four children in Minnesota on the cooking of her native New Orleans.
“More than anything, gumbo is the smell I remember,” said Mateo Mackbee, one of those children and the chef and co-owner of the restaurant. “That’s one you would get outside the front door.”
Mateo Mackbee was in the dining room of Krewe, a window-lined eatery in a new low-rise building at in downtown St. Joseph, a community of 7,000 near St. Cloud that’s home to the College of St. Benedict. His mother was there, too, sharing stories about her life and overseeing the jambalaya that Mackbee’s 21-year-old son, Makel, was cooking for takeout service later that day.
Krewe’s sign reads “Est. 1944,” Mary Mackbee’s birth year, even though it opened in late May, four days after George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Mackbee, 47, and Erin Lucas, 27, his girlfriend and business partner, moved from Minneapolis two years ago. They were driven by a shared desire to bring awareness of racial inequities to rural communities and to find an alternative to the limited career options available to them in the metro area.
“I had grown kind of weary of the restaurant scene in the Twin Cities, where it was hard for someone like myself,” Mackbee said. “I’m a little bit older and a little bit darker than most of the people on the line.”
The partners began with a successful pop-up restaurant in nearby New London, Minn. They sank deeper roots this past spring when they also opened Flour & Flower, a bakery in a cottage-style building behind Krewe. Lucas is the bakery’s chef.
St. Joseph is not a cradle of racial diversity. It’s more than 90% white. But the town offered Mackbee an opportunity for ownership that he hadn’t received in the Twin Cities, despite his culinary degree and nearly a decade of experience in some of the area’s most respected restaurants. He proudly points out that three members of Krewe’s four-person kitchen staff are people of color.
“We’ve flipped the scenario that I’m normally used to,” he said.
Jon Petters, who owns the properties where Krewe and Flour & Flower are located, sold the couple hard on the potential of opening their businesses in St. Joseph.
Mackbee and Lucas were wooed to central Minnesota in the first place by the Rev. Mark Kopka, pastor of Nordland Lutheran Church in nearby Paynesville, whom Mackbee met in 2015 in a Twin Cities bar.
The men bonded over Mackbee’s dream of starting a farm where he could bring students of color who didn’t otherwise have access to nature, something they hope to realize in September through Model Citizen, a nonprofit group they created.
“We talked about this larger vision to get kids connected to the land and to food,” Kopka recalled.
But the chefs were welcomed for reasons that went beyond their culinary talent.
“A lot of people who grew up here, they’ve never known a person of color,” said Steve Peterson, a retired General Mills executive who attends Kopka’s church. “There’s something about these guys being here that helps.”
Agriculture and food-processing jobs in Willmar and St. Cloud have drawn workers, particularly from East Africa and Latin America. The demographic changes have touched off a rise in nativist politics and xenophobia. In 2017, a St. Cloud City Council member proposed a moratorium on new immigrants. The motion failed, but it attested to the open resentment over immigration.
Growing up in the area, Emma Ditlevson, a 21-year-old Krewe line cook, overheard friends’ parents as they criticized immigrants for failing to assimilate.
“I don’t think people here realize that it’s a beautiful thing to represent a different culture in a community that doesn’t have that much diversity,” said Ditlevson, who was born in South Korea and adopted by a white couple.
“Instead of seeing the culture as something beautiful and something to embrace and something to understand more, they see it as something people should just give up.”
Mackbee and Lucas were drawn to the region in part for the opportunity to confront issues of racial injustice with Model Citizen, an impulse that is as much a tribute to his mother’s influence as Krewe’s menu.
“I feel like my mom prepared me for coming out here and facing whatever comes my way,” Mackbee said.
Mackbee has never worked in a New Orleans-style restaurant. He learned to cook New Orleans cuisine at home through recipes that descend directly from African-American cooks of the Jim Crow era. The food his mother cooked for her children in the 1980s and ’90s was virtually untouched by the vagaries of contemporary restaurant trends.
“I never had a steak until I came up here,” Mary Mackbee, 76, said of Minnesota, where she moved in the mid-’60s. “I always thought steak was cooked with gravy.”
She served for 26 years as principal of St. Paul’s Central High School. She was married to Earsell Mackbee, a cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings. After the couple divorced, Mary Mackbee raised their four children alone in Bloomington. She cooked her family large pots of the dishes she had grown up eating in New Orleans.
Mateo Mackbee’s gumbo, inspired by his mother’s, is reminiscent of a style found in older Creole restaurants in New Orleans: The broth is thin, stained by a light brown roux and loaded with shrimp and sausage. A Midwestern twist comes from the andouille sausage made by Johnsonville, the Wisconsin company famous for its bratwurst.
Similar ingredients enrich a spicy jambalaya Mackbee also learned from his mother. Instead of mixing the ingredients together as in a paella, the traditional method in southern Louisiana, the Mackbees’ jambalaya is a savory sauce spooned over plain rice.
As he sampled these dishes, Matt Lindstrom, a political-science professor at St. John’s University, said he was excited to find a place like Krewe in St. Joseph.
“When I was a kid, it was a big deal to go to Applebee’s,” he said. “And you had to drive to St. Cloud for that.”
In September, Mackbee and Lucas hope to bring the first group of students to the 1-acre farm they are establishing with Kopka and other collaborators in Paynesville.
“One of the things we noticed is that all of these kids are literally surrounded by farmland,” Mackbee said, “but they don’t have the opportunity to step onto it.”
The farm is on land donated to Model Citizen by Peterson and his wife, Mary, through a partnership with Nordland Lutheran Church. Peterson spent his later years at General Mills trying to educate farmers about the virtues of regenerative agriculture, a sustainable farming practice that aims to improve the soil.
“We see this farm as a model for the area,” Peterson said, “to encourage other young people to be entrepreneurs and to do what’s right for the land.”
By year’s end, Mackbee and Lucas plan to have a chicken coop, sheep and a wood-fired oven to cook for outdoor parties. The ingredients will show up on their menus. And, ideally, the farm will enrich the community in other ways.
Standing outdoors on a windy afternoon, Mackbee looked toward a patch of forest at the edge of the still-unplowed farmland.
“I need to get the kids out here to see it and to smell it,” he said.
His thoughts drifted toward a future when he can host children of color from the Twin Cities.
“If we can just get them out here for a while, away from the stress,” he said, “maybe we can help give them what they need, to be what they want to be and not what society says they are.”