Minneapolis owes Portland a drink. Make it a ras el hanout latte.
In the kitchen of a seafood restaurant in that proudly weird Pacific Northwest city, two early-career chefs converged at the right time, leading, a decade later, to the formation of one of the Twin Cities' most exciting food partnerships.
Together, Daniel del Prado and Shawn McKenzie are the team behind two locations of Café Cerés, a Middle Eastern-infused daytime cafe that showcases McKenzie's expert work as a pastry chef — and is home to that date-sweetened and coriander-and-cumin-spiced ras el hanout latte. Their partnership grew this summer with the opening of Cardamom, the Walker Art Center's new Mediterranean restaurant, and they hope to open more outlets of Café Cerés.
Separately, del Prado owns and operates (with other partners) a quintet of highly acclaimed restaurants: Martina, Colita and Rosalia in south Minneapolis, Josefina in Wayzata, and Sanjusan in Minneapolis' North Loop.
But the collaboration between del Prado, the wildly prolific and deeply respected restaurateur, and McKenzie, one the area's most talented pastry chefs, is close to both of their hearts because it began in friendship. "It's kind of a mini love letter to each other," McKenzie says one summer afternoon, seated beside del Prado on a bench in the Walker lobby in front of the still-under-construction Cardamom.
It also might be a model for how the evolving Twin Cities restaurant scene can support the advancement of underrepresented minorities. Del Prado is a Latin American immigrant; McKenzie is a Black woman. Both say it's no coincidence that they've chosen to lift each other up.
"It's in the back of our minds 100 percent of the time," del Prado says.
But first, there was the Portland fish house in late 2010. Del Prado was the sous chef and McKenzie was the pastry chef. "Usually those two are the ones doing all the work," del Prado says. "The chef gets all the attention."
Overshadowed and close to overworked, the two developed mutual respect for each other. "Back then, I was a beast," del Prado says. "Working hard was what I wanted to be my legacy." He put in extra time at the restaurant, trying to make the leap from the kitchen to an operational role.
McKenzie was also working on improving her skill set at one of her first pastry jobs. "When I look back, I'm like, I didn't do my best. Like, I had a cupcake trio, you know?" she laughs.
Each noticed the other, toiling away at odd hours. "I remember seeing him in his spare time at work researching. He did practically everything, and he would work at night expediting," McKenzie recalls. "I was kind of shifted away in this little room making ice creams, and he'd come back and try things out on me and talk to me and we just started to become friends."
Del Prado began giving McKenzie feedback on her creations, opening a channel of honesty that continues to this day.
"He's definitely helped me push my game in terms of pastry and what I can do with flavors and food," McKenzie says. "He's such an honest person, almost to the point where my feelings get hurt. I think that's helped me trust him a lot more and take him at his word."
That trust helped McKenzie make a big decision in 2013.
Before working in Portland, del Prado had been based in Minneapolis, where he opened as the chef at Bar La Grassa under his mentor, Isaac Becker. One day, he got a call from his former boss to come back and open Burch. Del Prado accepted — and asked McKenzie to join him. The Olympia, Wash., native had never been to Minneapolis, and though she entertained the idea, she didn't commit. "And he would call me once a week and be like, 'OK, so this is what we're thinking, we want to do this and do that, and cakes.' And maybe a month before I was going to have to move, I was like, I think I'm actually gonna go. It was a weird move — me, and my cat and a car."
Building up talent
McKenzie isn't the first chef del Prado persuaded to move to Minneapolis, and in the local restaurant scene, he has culled a reputation for sharing his knowledge and his contacts to help put other chefs on the path to their own empires. His old friend Facundo DeFraia, whom he had worked with back in their native Buenos Aires, and later in Colorado, relocated from San Diego to make empanadas at Martina when it opened in 2017, on del Prado's invitation.
Del Prado insisted DeFraia also train as a floor manager to gain the experience he'd need in Minneapolis to strike out on his own. DeFraia stayed a year before moving on with not only del Prado's blessing, but also his connections and his help finding a space for his first empanada and pizza restaurant, Boludo. DeFraia now has a second Boludo and is a Twin Cities food star in his own right. "He really gives you the opportunity to grow and become your own boss," DeFraia says. "He opened up the door for me."
The list of people del Prado has influenced is long. Cooks, servers, bartenders, managers and graphic designers have gone on to open their own businesses, or plan to.
"It's a really big group of people," McKenzie says of del Prado's circle. "I'm like sixth."
Ernesha Hooks started as a brunch server at Martina, then worked her way up to sous chef and transferred to Colita and rose even higher to executive chef. She has since moved on to launch a youth-centered nonprofit, which del Prado has donated to, and joined a team of restaurant managers at All Square.
"DDP is the best chef I've ever worked for," Hooks says. "He always had room for opportunity. Just the way he moves as a chef is very inspiring and what I've taken for how I moved into my own nonprofit and business."
When del Prado left Burch to open Martina, McKenzie's star was rising, thanks, perhaps, to her legendary baba au rhum. The Star Tribune's Rick Nelson has called it "one of the most memorable desserts to ever grace a Minneapolis menu." Out of loyalty to Becker, del Prado didn't recruit her to leave with him, and their paths diverged. But not for long.
Reunited in a new venture
McKenzie stayed with Burch for five years before moving on to become the executive chef for Penny's Cafe. There her interests in Middle Eastern cuisine came to the fore after a food trip to Jerusalem. "I was just kind of going around to the markets and it was one of those experiences that really opened my eyes to how little I know about food," she says.
Penny's was in Linden Hills, just a few blocks from del Prado's Martina. The friends had been talking about working together again, and began making plans to open a cafe across the street from del Prado's Colita when fate intervened. The pandemic hit. Penny's closed. Instead of taking a pause, their plans accelerated. McKenzie and del Prado took over the Penny's space and launched Café Cerés at the end of 2020.
"It just worked out, and sometimes I think that, especially with COVID, weird things just — not fell into my lap, but made it so, OK, you can keep going. You're not going to just stop in your tracks and wait for something," McKenzie says. "Especially with Danny, there's never any ounce of 'nothing's happening.' "
By spring 2021, McKenzie and del Prado opened the second, larger Café Cerés in Minneapolis' Armatage neighborhood. Then came Cardamom, which explores the food of the lands touched by the Mediterranean Sea, from southern Europe to the Middle East.
This new business partnership, rooted in friendship, is flourishing. "It's not a bit surprising," says Becker, that del Prado and McKenzie have found further success by joining forces. "They're two super-talented people and they're both lucky to be working with each other. It's a great relationship."
It's also a beacon for a new wave of leaders in the Twin Cities restaurant scene.
"When I came to this country, I didn't have a working permit. I ran out of money and I had to get a job. And when I got into this industry, for a white guy, it was streamlined pretty much," del Prado says. In his experiences, half of the kitchen staff might be immigrants, but rarely, if ever, did they make it to the top. So, he worked twice as hard, rose up and seems to just keep on going.
"And for Shawn, a Black woman in this industry, I tell her, right now, you are the power," he says. "To be the ones calling the shots, it represents a lot of change."