You won’t often hear Voltaire mentioned in the same sentence as a BLT sandwich or even in the same context, but chef and restaurant owner Shanita McAfee makes the intersection between the two very plain.
The KC Magazine 2010 Sexiest Singles alumnae is sitting on a bench outside of Magnolia’s, her contemporary Southern cuisine joint, helping staff members with receipt tabulation all while taking a delivery of micro greens from the urban farming collective Cultivate KC – and she’s eating a BLT.
In between bites and musings about how she likes to pepper her own bacon because the pepper in pre-packaged bacon always falls off comes the Voltaire allusion. It’s her favorite quote.
Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.
“This quote is the embodiment of who I am as a chef,” she says. “In life, for me it’s very black and white, this or that. I don’t understand the gray area, and when I’m forced there it’s difficult for me to operate. I think that my uncompromising attitude is what has gotten me where I am. It is the foundation for all decisions that I make professionally and personally.”
On this particular day, the sandwich is a pleasure as well as a necessity, she’s always busy, always on her feet, always loading and unloading, always thinking kitchen-to-plate.
Magnolia’s is known for conjuring up delectable items such as Shrimp and Grits (see below), prawns in a white wine reduction sauce with wafer-thin slices of tangy cheese, seasoned greens and a wonderful yellow grit cake. One of my personal favorites I scarf down on this day.
But it’s the reimagining of Southern cuisine that becomes the staple at this nascent establishment. For instance, try these dishes on for size:
Red Velvet Waffles: At first you say, what? And then you say, “wow.” Then you think to yourself, they must be pulling their hair out somewhere in Belgium because these waffles are hard to beat.
Nutter Butter French Toast: Rich brioche bread with Nutter Butter Cookie crumbs dancing on the surface, a strange combination that forces you to do two things: Shut the heck up and close your eyes in mind-numbing delight, and second, question whether there is anything else worth living for.
Gumbo: ‘Nuff said.
Uber Creamy Smoked Guda Mac & Cheese: If there were ever something to attach the word “uber” to, it’s this.
Part of this inventive take on these dishes is McAfee’s disdain for leftovers and flair for reinvention.
“I don’t like leftovers for two reasons,” she says. “I grew up eating leftovers and hated them. We would eat them for two or three days. Even as a young child I thought it was completely gross. For most foods, when they’re reheated they lose integrity and quality. It just doesn’t taste the same. “
It’s that type of thinking that explains her efforts to put a new spin on Southern cuisine and move away from terms like “soul food.” Such a lofty endeavor is as risky as it is evidenced by menu items such as “Not Yo Mama’s” bread pudding. After sampling and deliberating, it’s confirmed – not my or your momma’s.
This is not in a bad way, but in a way that makes traditional dishes lighter, healthier.
“Soul food has a negative connotation,” McAfee explains. “People associate that with horrible servers, greasy and unhealthy food and if you research Southern cuisine, you begin to understand that’s not how they ate at all. The Southern cuisine is one that is based on hospitality.” In this vein, defining her restaurant by what it’s not right out of the gate appears just as much or more important that defining it.
Inside the spot, the décor is less a reinvention of the wheel of ambiance and a sort of case study in combining the old and new, with portraits of Negro League Legend Buck O’Neil, old recipe pictorials and black Southern familes in their Sunday best leaning on classic American automobiles and contemporary work by Kansas City artists. All of this complements the subdued hue of a creamy yellow wall.
Bacon and sweet potatoes are McAfee’s forté, earning her the nickname around town as the “sweet potato princess,” for her ability to make any and everything from sweet potatoes. Certain menu items are a testimony to this fact. In addition to pie, there is sweet potato hash, sweet potato bisque soup and sweet potato that really should be put in a bag and sold.
As McAfee looks forward toward the future, she says her cooking style is developing, and once things settle down at the restaurant she wants to travel, reach out to other chefs locally and elsewhere and learn and experience food here and in other places while growing Magnolia as a brand.
It may seem a tall order for a single mother of three who commutes to midtown KC from not-so-nearby Olathe, but considering that just a couple years ago, she was an out-of-work financial advisor who happens to cook really well, the decision on progression to caterer to chef to restaurant owner was easy as pie – good pie, like the sweet potato masterpiece she’s known for.
“There is so much I have not learned and there is always room for improvement!”
With that, McAfee is off the bench outside and back into the game inside, disappearing behind the curtain separating the kitchen from the dining area, too quick for me to tell her that the one hangnail in the mix is the smooth-jazz covers of rap songs that she has playing in a loop. Though the food overshadows this.
It’s just as appropriate when I consider McAfee’s food to once again evoke Voltaire, who famously said, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
McAfee is that type of chef, and Magnolia’s now belongs to all of us.