Lots of chefs dream of a true farm-to-table restaurant, but few pack-up and move to the farm to get it done.
“I’m the only Black person out here,” said Mateo Mackbee, chef and owner of Model Citizen restaurant in the tiny town of New London, Minnesota, population 1,376.
But he’s cool with it. Thanks to his eclectic set of interests, including soccer, he says he’s always been “that” Black guy – the one people feel like they can approach, and “talk to, and touch,” he laughs.
“Farm-to-table” has taken on the hollow, nebulous meaning that “local,” and “organic” before it have. What does it even mean? For Mackbee and his partner, Erin Lucas, it means working the farm themselves, then cooking the food, and putting it on the table.
“People look at us like we’re crazy.”
But had they not taken this opportunity, they say that would have been crazy.
Both Mackbee and Lucas have a background in conventional culinary settings. They met while working at Mozza Mia, an Italian concept by Parasole, a large Twin Cities restaurant holdings company known for its all-things-for-all-people approach. Mackbee has an impressive resume, peppered with famous names in the business.
“I’ve worked for everybody,” he says, “but still, no one was ‘checking for me’ to open a restaurant.”
It’s an all too common reality for Black chefs. Most chefs need the backing of investors and the support of other big-name chefs in order to open their own businesses, but around here, it doesn’t seem to be happening much for African-Americans. Then one night, Mackbee was in a bar and a pastor walked in.
“I know, it sounds like the setup to a joke,” said Mackbee.
The two got to talking about their hopes and dreams. The pastor, Mark Kopka, is into yoga, meditation and holistic healing. Mackbee and Lucas are into raising natural food and cooking it the right way. They wanted to share their passions with youth of color who otherwise lack the opportunity know what it’s like to have their hands encrusted with earth, or to tie on an apron.
The men stayed in touch for four years, and eventually, Kopka had a lead on some land. Mackbee and Lucas could work it for free. Nearby, a fledgling brewery needed food.
“It all came together at the same time,” said Mackbee.
Goat Ridge Brewery is now home to Model Citizen restaurant, owned and operated almost entirely by Mackbee and Lucas, with the occasional prep and dishwashing help. They’re just now getting to know their farmland as well, about 10 minutes away from the restaurant, currently offering beets, brussels sprouts and corn.
Next growing season will be the true test of what they can do, farm-to-table wise, when they bring kids of color from the surrounding areas – namely large populations of Somali and Latino kids, who in spite of being surrounded by farmland, don’t get a chance to get in the dirt.
“Out here there’s nothing to worry about – no stigma, no pressures of other kids, of being in the hood, of walking past liquor stores. Maybe they’ll see someone that looks like me, and it will open up other possibilities than what they deal with on a daily basis,” said Mackbee.
Their menu is made up of “elevated comfort food;” the kinds of things that go great with a beer, like brisket, roast chicken and woodfired pizza. Mackbee’s mom hails from New Orleans, so he’s got that pedigree “running through my veins,” so watch for his jambalaya and red beans and rice, and other subtle nods to Black cooking, like buttermilk chicken wings. But this is not a soul food restaurant. Mackbee calls their cooking “heritage,” and culinary stylings from all over the world might emerge, so long as it makes use of the farm. Find “celebration of peas” or “celebration of corn” on the rotating menus, where the of-this-minute veg is the star.
Mackbee has some background in growing, including work with the urban farm movement, plus a one-third-acre garden at his mother’s Bloomington home. He says he’s seen heartbreaking amounts of food waste in his years in restaurants and “how crappy it was, where it came from, and how crappy it got treated,” spurred him on to this moment.
“There’s intrinsic value that’s been lost in the cultivation of food,” he says.
With an earnest enthusiasm, he truly believes that if kids can get experience on a farm, their lives will be changed.
“We want to use the power of food to build the leaders of tomorrow,” said the chef.
Model Citizen Restaurant and Youth Farm is a 501c3 nonprofit, and accepts donations. For more information, to help or to visit, go to www.iamamodelcitizen.org.