MPR News with Angela Davis

Lachelle Cunningham: Improvising on Black American roots in the kitchen

woman in chef tunic in kitchen
After more than 20 years of sharing delicious food with the Twin Cities through her catering company, Lachelle Cunningham is expanding her work teaching culinary skills and training food entrepreneurs.
Courtesy of Lachelle Cunningham

Early fall is one of the best times to be a cook. The farmers markets are still full of summer crops like tomatoes, green beans, cucumber and sweet corn — and fall favorites like apples, sweet potatoes and squash are just arriving.  

For chef Lachelle Cunningham, the harvest sparks her imagination. It’s where healthy and flavorful meals start (scroll down for Smoked Squash Soup and White Bean Pheasant Chili recipes).

Cunningham has been sharing her culinary creativity with the Twin Cities for more than twenty years, ever since friends and family started raving about the dishes she brought to potlucks inspired by the culinary traditions of Black Americans.  

In 2012, she started her catering business, Chelles’ Kitchen. A few years later, she became founding executive chef at Breaking Bread Cafe in North Minneapolis, where she developed many of their signature dishes, including a version of her uncle’s sweet potato pie.   

Now Cunningham is expanding her mission to teach and support other food entrepreneurs through her latest venture, Healthy Roots Institute. She is also interim director of Frogtown Farm in St. Paul. Find all her classes and events here.

MPR News host Angela Davis talked with Cunningham about improvising with the fall harvest and where food intersects with social justice.   

two women in broadcast studio
MPR News host Angela Davis (left) talks with Twin Cities chef Lachelle Cunningham in an MPR News studio in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Maja Beckstrom | MPR News

Click play on the audio player above to listen to the full conversation and check out these seasonal recipes below.

Smoked Squash Soup

By Lachelle Cunningham

Serves 8 - 12 people

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion or 1 leek, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 ½ tablespoons turmeric

1 ½ tablespoons cumin

2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dry

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup apple juice (or 1 whole apple, peeled and diced)

2 medium squash, peeled, roasted and smoked

4 cups coconut milk

6 cups water or stock

3 tomatoes, diced (optional, for garnish)

3 kale leaves, chopped (optional, for garnish)


squash soup
Smoked Squash Soup.
Courtesy of Lachelle Cunningham
  1. In oil, sauté onion, garlic, turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili powder and salt.

  2. Add apple juice and squash. Cover and cook until squash is very soft — about 15 minutes.

  3. Remove squash mixture from pan and whisk well or puree in food processor for a creamier consistency.

  4. Return the pureed squash to the pan, add coconut milk and stock and heat through — about 10 minutes.

  5. Add tomatoes and kale at the end to soften.

White Bean Pheasant Chili

By Lachelle Cunningham

Serves 12 people

Can be made with any poultry of your choice.

2 tablespoons cooking oil

4-6 tomatillos (quartered)

2 large onions (1 quartered, 1 diced)

2 jalapeno peppers (quartered)

4 poblano peppers (2 quartered, 2 diced)

8 garlic cloves (4 whole, 4 minced)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ground cumin

3 teaspoons ground coriander

8 cups low-sodium chicken broth

2 cans white beans, half smashed

4 limes, juiced, plus lime wedges, for serving

2 roasted pheasants (shredded meat only)

¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves

Sour cream

Chopped cilantro and green onions

Tortilla chips, coarsely crushed

Lime wedges


  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F (200 °C)

  2. Combine the quartered tomatillos, onion, jalapeno peppers (remove seeds if desired), poblano peppers and the four whole garlic cloves in a large bowl. Toss them with the cooking oil, salt and pepper until well coated.

  3. Pour the vegetable mixture onto a parchment-lined sheet tray and roast in the preheated oven until the tomatillos are very soft and the other vegetables are tender — about 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool.

  4. While the roasted vegetables are cooling, in a large soup pot, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of cooking oil and heat it over medium-high heat.

  5. Chop the diced onion and minced garlic and sauté them in the pot until they become soft and fragrant — about five minutes. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper to taste.

    a dish of chili
    White Bean Pheasant Chili.
    Courtesy of LaChelle Cunningham
  6. Add the cumin, coriander and ancho chili powder to the sauteed onions and garlic. Continue to sauté for one more minute to toast the spices.

  7. Stir in the chicken broth and lime juice and bring the mixture to a simmer.

  8. Once the roasted vegetables have cooled, place them in a blender or food processor and blend them to a smooth consistency.

  9. Add the blended tomatillo mixture and the half-smashed white beans to the simmering broth. Continue to simmer for an additional 20 minutes.

  10. After 20 minutes of simmering, taste the chili for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

  11. Stir in the shredded pheasant meat and chopped cilantro. Simmer until heated through, about five more minutes.

  12. Serve the chili in individual bowls, topped with a dollop of sour cream, crushed tortilla chips, cilantro, chopped green onions and lime wedges.

Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS.  

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.    

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.