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Crosscurrents
Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Home cooking comes full circle in the Fillmore

Chef Fernay McPherson, surrounded by family and friends, cuts the ribbon for her restaurant opening.
Citizen Film
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Finn PR
Chef Fernay McPherson cuts the ribbon for the opening of her restaurant, Minnie Bell's Soul Movement.

This story first aired in the June 13, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Fernay McPherson’s family came to the Fillmore District from Texas in the 1960s, as a part of the Great Migration that brought African Americans from the South to cities across the U.S. When those families migrated, their recipes did too.

Click the play button above to listen to this story

I’m in the kitchen of Chef Fernay McPherson’s new restaurant, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement. She and her team are prepping some signature dishes: rosemary fried chicken, cornbread, and pound cake.

Minnie Bell’s serves pound cake from Fernay’s family recipe. Her great grandmother was very protective of that cake.

Fernay: When she had a pound cake in the oven we couldn’t move, because she thought the cake was going to fall.

And it literally accompanied her on her move to California in the 1960s.

Fernay: When she migrated on the train, my grandmother made fried chicken and pound cake for their ride.

So even though Fernay has never lived in the South herself, that pound cake tastes like Texas. 

In April 2024, Fernay opened Minnie Bell’s in the Fillmore. When you walk in, you’re immediately greeted with a mural-sized photo of the neighborhood in its heyday. SJ 5.1There are two huge black and white portraits of Fernay’s grandmother and great aunt gracing the walls. These are the women she learned to cook from. And when I chatted with the friends, family, and passersby who came to the opening, it became very clear, very quickly: her food has fans.

Diners crowd in Minnie Bell's Fillmore restaurant location.
Citizen Film
/
Finn PR
A crowd gathers at the opening of Minnie Bell's Fillmore location.

These fans have followed her from her food truck days, to the Emeryville Public Market, and now, to the Fillmore. When that food truck launched in 2013, San Francisco was in the middle of a “Southern food” craze. But back then, the Bay Area food scene wasn’t so quick to recognize chefs like Fernay, home cooks who had sharpened their skills to restaurant-level quality.

Fernay: It was a white male dominated field, you know? Very much so. All the write ups were going to these fancy white restaurants.

Places that featured, foams, smokes, and thin swipes of sauce. Highly-engineered foods with big flavors packed into small bites.

People were trying to elevate soul food and make it, like, “fine dining.” And I was trying to find my niche in that area [ ... ] and then I was like, 'Why? Why am I doing that?'
Chef Fernay McPherson

Fernay was drawn to the restaurant meals happening behind the scenes: staff meals.

Fernay: Now this is not the meals that the customers would see. This is the meals the prep cooks, the lines cooks would make that would be so amazing … but you didn’t see it in restaurants.

Those meals made her realize: she wasn’t interested in “okra smoke.” She joined the culinary incubator, La Cocina.

Fernay: I was in the kitchen with a bunch of different women who were just doing what they do.

All those women — those “home cooks,” working to start food businesses — were creating absolutely delicious meals rooted in their cultures, their lineages, and their own family histories. And that helped Fernay sharpen her own culinary voice.

Cornbread, collard greens, pickles, and mac and cheese.
Citizen Film
/
Finn PR
A selection of sides from Minnie Bell's.
The food that I cook is the food that I grew up eating. I may put a little “twist” on things [...] but it still resonates with the food that I grew up eating. And that’s important.
Chef Fernay McPherson

She definitely still makes her family’s fried chicken. But she’s added a very “California” twist: fresh rosemary. When she nailed that recipe, she realized she didn’t need to “elevate” anything.

Fernay: And it doesn’t have to be so bougie. Just good food.

Fernay turned to her favorite food memories for inspiration.

Fernay: My dad: he loved to BBQ. There’s a picture of my younger brother and I, and we were sitting on the porch, and we had two huge ribs, bigger than us. I can go somewhere and eat BBQ, but it doesn’t taste like my dad’s.

When she makes her family’s recipes, it’s like she’s telling those family stories, through food.

Fernay: If I open up a restaurant that’s not a part of my culture, I won’t be able to tell that story.

Fernay learned how to cook from her great aunt and grandmother, Minnie and Lillie Bell, respectively. They’re the namesakes of Minnie Bell’s. It’s their portraits on her restaurant’s walls. And it’s their standards she’s trying to meet when she cooks.

Speaking of family: mine is from the South, too — Southwest Virginia, not Texas. As a Southern woman, I also grew up mixing cornbread batter and licking spoons. But as a white woman, I would never open up a Soul Food restaurant. Personally, I couldn’t. Because Soul Food comes from African-Americans in the South.

The “Mother of Soul Food,” Edna Lewis, speaking in a documentary on Southern cooking, talks about how African Americans were really the ones who developed the food we think of as "Southern" food.

Edna Lewis: In the beginning, Blacks were really the only cooks, and they were the ones who developed the food of the South, which they called “Southern hospitality.” Through their cooking, they developed techniques, flavor ... and they truly produced the only true regional cuisine in this country, is the Southern cuisine, fully developed.

Part of the story of soul food is the story of creating abundance from scarcity, when enslaved people were only given the “off” cuts of meat and other undesirable ingredients that would otherwise go wasted. With those leave-behinds, soul food cooks created — and have continued creating — comfort, and joy.

Fernay recalls a time when she was on the receiving end of that comfort…

Fernay: When I was pregnant with my son, I was just eating like a little pig. And I was like, Oh, I wanna stop eating.

But her son’s grandmother insisted.

Fernay: You eat until your heart is full. And I was like, Oh, thank you. Let me make another plate.

Those feelings are infused into Fernay’s food. And others — regardless of their cultural background — feel it too.

Back at the Minnie Bell’s kitchen, prep cook Facundo “Mundo” Perez is cleaning rosemary for the fried chicken. He says that his sister cooks food from Mexico — where they’re from — and he’s transported back home.

Mundo: Te transportas al lugar donde eres.

And he thinks the same is true of Fernay’s food.

Mundo: Y pienso que igual aqui. La gente qui prueba la comida de Chef Fernay, se transportan a su lugar, o recuerdan su estados.

Fernay’s food is from her family’s roots in Texas. But her restaurant is all about her own roots here in the Bay. Because it’s in the Fillmore — the neighborhood she grew up in — it’s like she’s coming home. And Fernay says she wants to be a part of a long-promised renaissance here.

Years ago, she was looking for validation from critics. But now she’s just excited to cook for the community she grew up with.

Fernay: When elders come in and tell me: oh this food is so good: that’s it for me. That’s it for me. My aunt Minnie came in one day and said, “you are getting better and better.” That’s it for me. That’s all the validation that I need.

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Crosscurrents Audio Academy 2024
I’m a strategist and storyteller who’s loved audio — and radio specifically — as long as I can remember. After studying radio documentary at the Salt Institute, I contributed to Snap Judgment and WVTF News before bringing my storytelling skills to the marketing world. I’m happy to be back where I feel I belong: the public radio community.