Chef Lachelle Cunningham, owner of Chelle’s Kitchen and Healthy Roots Institute, is “known for cooking globally inspired comfort food that thwarts unhealthy stereotypes and fuses in global flavors,” according to the website.
Cunningham told the MSR about her background and journey to becoming a chef. “I was technically born in Minneapolis, but by the time I was three, my mom had moved to St. Paul. My dad stayed in Minneapolis, so I’ve pretty much been in both cities,” she said.
She graduated from Highland Park in St. Paul, and “by 11th grade I was doing post-secondary [classes], and I was at the [University of Minnesota],” Cunningham added.
“I was in college, started a family, was still going to school part-time. I ended up becoming an executive assistant at United Way, and that’s when I leveraged a position and went across the street to Thrivent,” she said.
Cunningham explained that she became an executive assistant to a VP at Thrivent. “That’s when I really thought I wanted to be an event planner, because I love logistics and planning things, and I would plan all of the company’s events,” she recalled.
When Cunningham planned events, she would prepare the food. To her surprise, the attendees “were really liking my food,” she said.
“I would have these dinner parties, and then those started to get bigger. First, it was family and friends, then it became more extravagant… That’s when people started asking me to cater for their events, and that’s pretty much how history was made with me starting Chelle’s Kitchen,” she said.
Although cooking came naturally, she decided to sign up for culinary school. “I went to culinary school right around the time I launched my catering business, and I also started teaching,” she said.
“I probably started informally in 2010, and then in 2012-2013 is when I launched my business—2014 is when I graduated from culinary school,” Cunningham said.
She said, “In January 2015 is when I basically went to Appetite for Change and launched Breaking Bread Cafe and kind of pushed my catering business. I built their catering business on the back of mine.” She eventually departed and focused on building her own catering business.
Cunningham also serves as a culinary instructor. She used to teach at St. Paul College, and then began working with The Good Acre, located in St. Paul, and launched “Healthy Roots Institute [HRI]” in 2018.
As for HRI, “That’s where I focus on healing through the love of food and the business of food, so really it’s an educational institute—cooking classes, workshops, and retreats for the home cook and culinary training, vocational training for professionals,” she said.
“When I left St. Paul College, I went to The Good Acre—a nonprofit, social justice food hub where they work with farmers to help support them and get their produce to different markets,” Cuningham said. They hired her to create a “vocational culinary training program.”
She learned invaluable and lifelong lessons from her family. “Ambition and entrepreneurship are in my family fabric, generations on both sides. I think the entrepreneurial spirit was always inside of me from a young age. That work ethic is just what my parents taught me.”
Cunningham shared who inspires her as a chef: “I get inspired all the time just by people in my community, other chefs in the industry that have built their careers and built their businesses.
“If I can think of someone specifically, locally—one of the first chefs was James Baker. He was the chef over at SunnySide Cafe, and he was one of the chefs I worked with where we did this big community meal for like 2,000 people when I just was coming up out of culinary school,” she said.
She also draws strength from a prominent figure in Black history: “Harriet Tubman is like someone that I look to for inspiration and is my muse,” Cunningham confided.
“I really think about entrepreneurship, this social justice and food justice, and all the work I do—it’s not the same as leading enslaved people to freedom, but I feel like it kind of is,” she said.
She added, “The slavery of colonization and the way that our society works that we have to go to work for other people and breaking those bonds and freeing ourselves, taking control and being empowered through entrepreneurship is part of the work I do.”
She educates individuals about “the business of food” and encourages young people to “be open, explore, don’t close yourself off—be willing to evolve.”
Ashley Lauren is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder.