When Jervis White Jr. lost his job in finance at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to make a choice: Should he go back to school to complete a business degree, or follow his dream and go to culinary school?
White had briefly attended business courses at the University of Phoenix but was convinced by a cousin to transfer to Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, where White got his degree. In June of last year, White decided to pursue his passion and created Papa J’s Kitchen and Goods, using the pension from his old job.
“I relied on God, my faith to direct me and guide me through it all,” White said. “There’s been several challenges. Part of it is trying to build something from the ground up with the very little money that you have.”
White had been working at restaurants since he was a teenager but says he only started seriously considering going into cooking when his friends began to compliment the food he prepared for them. “Cooking is like therapy to me,” White said.
Along with his fiancé Catherine Bigham, White runs two food-related businesses in Minneapolis: a food pop-up called Papa J’s Kitchen and Goods, and Black Roots Sauce and Seasoning, an online retailer for spices and other cooking supplies.
White, who has been involved in the local music scene since 1998, said the first time he was able to showcase his food was in July 2021 at a hip hop event in Minneapolis. He credited the people he met through music as having expanded the opportunities for his food business. His nickname of “Chef Nyce” stems from his producer name “JNyce.”
“Music helped me do more of the networking and connecting with people around the Twin Cities,” White said. “I even got an opportunity to meet Prince before he passed away.”
White focuses on healthy foods with Papa J’s Kitchen due to his own journey, which started when a vendor at a farmers market asked him to try a piece of garlic chives in 2012. “That opened my eyes to flavor,” White recalled. “I got an opportunity to try something in its rare form—and how good it was. The flavor [burst] in my mouth.
“Just from a little piece of an herb. It wasn’t dry; it was fresh. So then I just fell in love with using more ingredients that were not store-bought.” White says he lost 70 pounds once he began using fresh ingredients, experimenting with new recipes at the time.
“We grew up in a situation where the way we ate was based off of what we had,” White said. “I know that Black people deal with a lot of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure—that’s the biggest illnesses among Blacks. What I love to do is show people how they can eat healthy food and it can taste good at the same time.”
Not satisfied with only serving food, White started Black Roots Sauce and Seasoning to break into retail. Black Roots currently sells seasonings and sauces created by White.
“Eventually, I want to get into olive oil; then eventually cooking ware,” White said. “I want Papa J’s Kitchen and Goods to be a name brand, but then also want to be known for other little things that I enjoy doing.”
When White named Black Roots, he pictured a tree with roots down in black earth. The name also alludes to when White began to work on his mental health, which led him to dig into his family roots and history.
“The metaphor for Black Roots is about being rooted in your family, your faith and your foods,” White explained.
White currently helps with a food ministry through New Creation Baptist Church in South Minneapolis once a week. He also helped to create the community garden at Pilgrim Baptist Church, the oldest Black Baptist congregation in St. Paul.
He hopes to one day expand the Papa J’s brand to include a nonprofit called Papa J’s Kiddos, which would host free feeds for families. He is also looking to start a Papa J’s food truck in the future.
White sets up a monthly stand at the Lyndale Farmers Market and at The Black Market (theblackmarketmpls.com), a monthly community market for Black-owned businesses hosted at The Lab. Papa J’s can also be ordered online by going to papajskitchenandgoods.com. For more info, contact call (612) 457-6297 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.