Bringing soul into the city

The soul food scene needs momentum to thrive
Bringing soul into the city
Photo by Larry Chua
Fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread are standards among the offerings at McGee's Chicken on South Park Street.

Soul food is a term that reminds African Americans of great family cooks, good memories and mighty tasty food, with recipes borrowed from all over the world. Some of our traditional foods–okra, black-eyed peas and yams–originated in Africa. The term soul food was born in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, when “soul” was used to describe elements of African American culture, as in “soul music” or “soul man.” Traditional soul food is distinctive because of the use of a variety of seasonings and spices.

Soul food restaurants are found where there are large populations of African Americans, yet the cuisine is widely popular throughout the United States. While Madison has a growing African American community and plenty of “soul chefs” who also offer catering, soul food restaurants have a hard time flourishing here for a variety of reasons. The legendary Carson Gulley, head chef on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus (1927-1954), was the first popular African American TV chef. Never promoted, he left the UW to start a restaurant with his wife, Beatrice Gulley. The restaurant opened in 1962, serving weekend buffets. Tragically, only weeks after the opening, Carson died, so the restaurant was soon closed.

Chef Curtis Brown III currently cooks on UW-Madison’s campus at Rheta’s Market in Chadbourne Residential College, providing soul food that he defines as “whatever I cook in my kitchen.” When asked if he aspires to open his own restaurant, he says yes and no. Although it is his dream, he says. “If you want a restaurant to be successful, it is life-consuming,” Brown says. “You must be committed, and it requires a great deal of money and consistent customers.” He observes that Madison hasn’t fully supported a soul food restaurant, although people enjoy the great taste of food cooked by African American chefs, which is why he is a private caterer.

Umoja Magazine’s Black Business Directory lists a variety of black-owned catering businesses, but few are brick-and-mortar restaurants. One soul food restaurant is McGee’s Chicken, located at 1920 S. Park St. McGee’s is owned by Esperdell McGee, a pastor at Miracles of Life Outreach Ministries, which has churches located in Madison and Chicago. He brings Chicago’s big-city influence to Madison by offering an extensive menu of soul food. There’s also a section in the restaurant where sunglasses, purses and other items are sold.Bringing soul into the city

McGee defines soul food as good for the soul; it speaks to the heart. It’s “love food,” he says. He ran McGee’s Chicken at a gas station before moving to Park Street, and his dream is to continue expanding by opening up restaurants in Madison, throughout the state and eventually all over the country. His freshly fried chicken and “no salt” french fries make his food tasty and healthier than fast food. For him, the biggest problem with owning a restaurant is that “you can be in business for years and never really make a profit.” While church volunteers assist in running the restaurant, he can often be found working in the kitchen. His love of cooking began when he was 8 years old and his mom taught him how to make egg custard pie, sweet potato pie and pound cake. From that point on, he was hooked on cooking soul food. He wants customers at McGee’s Chicken “to come hungry and leave happy.”

Another local soul food chef, Carmell Jackson, owner of Melly Mell’s Catering, moved from restaurant service to catering. She defines soul food broadly, including different varieties of African American cuisine. Her parents, both fantastic cooks, she says, influenced her cooking. The decision to close her restaurant, Melly Mell’s Soul Food Restaurant, was based primarily on medical reasons, but also because she wasn’t able to find a good location. She found catering to be more profitable. The same is true for Chef Kipp Thomas, whose closed restaurants North American Rotisserie and Kipp’s Down-Home Cookin’ are remembered and missed. He now caters and hopes to begin teaching culinary arts to children and young adults. “Even without a full-scale restaurant, people call on me through Kipp’s Kitchen to feed them soul food for small gatherings and large events,” Thomas says. “People come back for the feeling that soul food provokes and the nostalgia experienced while eating.”

Genene McNeal owns Catering with Style, which has a soul food menu she wants to expand in ways that appeal to multiple ethnicities. Rod Ladson has his own soul food catering business, teaches soul food cooking classes and has a healthy soul food cookbook coming out. His recipes tend to be lighter versions of classics, while keeping the unique flavors and “that good ol’ Southern flair.”

Northside Family Restaurant, co-owned by African American Al Lynx, lasted a little more than a year before closing in 2016. It offered soul food along with a variety of standard American fare. Lynx also struggled with staff turnover and a customer base that was too small to sustain the business. While delicious soul food and African American chefs are appreciated in Madison, they have yet to find the volume of customers, expert staff, adequate financial investment and ideal locations necessary to support successful soul food restaurants.

Fabu Phillis Carter is a literary artist, educator and columnist who served as Madison Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2012.

Check out a list of 28 black-owned eateries and caterers in the Madison area.