Magnolia’s Shanita McAfee is looking to kickstart Southern cuisine in a new space

Chef Shanita McAfee is putting her stamp on Southern cuisine on Cherry Street.

Chef Shanita McAfee is putting her stamp on Southern cuisine on Cherry Street.

In a small office at the back of Magnolia’s Contemporary Southern Bistro, owner Shanita McAfee bounces 11-month-old Jorja on her lap and prints out a paper copy of the day’s menu. Her husband, Mark Bryant, tends to the early lunch crowd that has arrived only a few minutes after the doors have opened at 2932 Cherry Street on a recent Wednesday.

“Everyone has an opinion about Southern cooking because it’s nostalgic. That first year, I was really sensitive because people have no problem expressing what Southern cooking should be to your face,” McAfee says. “But now, I think people know what we do.”

It’s shrimp and grits and red velvet waffles – modern twists on Southern staples in a willing mix of sweet and savory elements – that have been on the menu since Magnolia’s opened in April 2012. The response from diners has led McAfee, 33, on a search for a new space with a larger kitchen and a full bar.

“We’re looking at two different spots. We’re ready to expand and have a full bar. Drinks are a big part of Southern cuisine,” McAfee says. “I’m thinking Hurricanes and Mint Juleps and brandies. Just something laidback, sipping and be social.”

When McAfee was in eighth grade, her family moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to Overland Park, Kansas. And out on 151st and Switzer with cows for neighbors, she remembers what happened when Ella and Mark McAfee got a satellite dish.

“That was the real Food Network. It was Iron Chef in subtitles,” McAfee says. “I’ve always had a competitive spirit and now to see people cooking for a living and compete at it, I was like dog-gone-it sign me up.”

McAfee had been cooking whole roasts since she was 15 years old as both her parents worked in the family’s janitorial business. “I didn’t have fast food parents,” McAfee says. “They just told me to make it happen for dinner.”

She graduated a semester early from Blue Valley Northwest High School and immediately was accepted in the culinary program at Johnson County Community College. Over the summers, she helped out at her family’s barbecue restaurant, Miss Ellie’s, in the Lake of the Ozarks. When the executive chef from the Lodge of Four Seasons, came in for lunch one day, she asked him if she could apprentice at the nearby resort. She landed in the bakery, under pastry chef Erika Davis (an alum of Top Chef: Desserts).

“She’s my culinary mother,” McAfee says. “We have the same birthday and the same kind of crazy. I just know how to reign mine in.”

McAfee left JCCC in January of 1998 – she intends to return to finish her last semester – to begin working full-time. She also got married to another chef. When they looked at their take home pay, she decided to stay home and raise their kids.

After a divorce, she began working as a financial analyst. But the economic recession and her desire to get back to the kitchen led her to start her own catering business. From 2010 to 2012, she worked as a personal chef crafting meals and catering events.

“I had a small group of people that enjoyed what I did, but I was ready to open [Magnolia’s],” McAfee says.

The red velvet waffles at Magnolia's.

The red velvet waffles at Magnolia’s.

One of the restaurant’s early signature dishes, the red velvet waffles, came from her 17-year-old son, Astin, who does a lot of the baking at Magnolia’s.

“His teacher pulled a picture of red velvet waffles up on Pinterest and told the class they were going to make those that day,” McAfee says. “And it was our waffles.”

The popular dish hasn’t come without sacrifice.

“We’ve burned up six or seven waffle-makers,” McAfee says. “They just die. Poor waffle-makers.”

Since opening a little over two years ago, she’s often had to adjust on the fly, cranking out food from her small kitchen or convincing her dad to smoke a few racks of ribs for a special.

“I feel like we do things on that cooktop that the manufacturer never intended,” McAfee says. “It’s four burners just like mom’s home stove. You‘ve got to negotiate what you’re doing and you have to be on top of your timing. I’ll have grit cakes on top, salmon in the oven and we’ll cook bacon early in the day and then crisp it up.”

McAfee thinks a lot about her next location, one that is big enough to fry chicken and allows her to seat more people in the dining room. She’s hoping to move in the fall, spending the summer months building out the new spot to avoid a gap in being open.

“We’ve evolved a bit, but we haven’t evolved to the place where I want us to be,” McAfee says.

The Recommended Daily sat down with McAfee to learn more about what drives her in the kitchen.

What is Southern cooking? Southern cooking is about the history of the South. We have missed the mark on real traditional Southern food. I think it’s gotten commercialized. It’s more than just fried chicken and collard greens and cornbread dressing. Each area of the South brings its own styles and flavors. I’m a history dork so I started realizing that New Orleans was settled by French and Spanish people, and paella could be jambalaya. It’s the same. Once I figured that out, it started making sense.

There’s a finesse and art to eating in the South that I think we miss in the Midwest. Today, it’s just eat now and taste later. But Southern food is about enjoying the meal. It’s about hospitality and bringing people in and big family dinners.

What are you culinary inspirations?  I have my go to people that I love. I like to see what they’re doing to get inspiration. One of my favorite books right now is Smoke & Pickles by Edward Lee. There are just some great ideas.

When I was pregnant, I put together Magnolia’s French Toast. Who takes pound cake and puts it in French toast batter? And then puts peaches with brandied syrup and cinnamon on top of it and whipped cream with crumb topping. A pregnant lady does.

What’s your favorite ingredient? I use a lot of bourbon. I use a lot of citrus. Southern recipes can be really heavy. But with my candied yams, I add a little orange zest and a little orange juice to it. It definitely kicks it up, brightens the flavor.

I use cinnamon and garlic on our sweet potato hash – cinnamon and garlic actually work really well together. I like to use ingredients in an unconventional manner.

What are you experimenting with? I want to explore collard greens a little more. I look at Edward Lee and kimchi. And I think about green tomatoes and collard greens and putting it on catfish.

I’ve been playing around with jams and jellies. Once me move, a new element to our menu will be condiments. Southern cooking is big on condiments. I’m looking at a spicy, peppery vinegar. I also want to expand our desserts. I’ve fallen back in love with chocolate and in our kitchen now, it’s too hot to temper chocolate. It kind of has to have its own space.

What’s one food you love? I am a junk food junkie. I like things that I shouldn’t like. I love Twinkies. The day they brought Twinkies back, I went to five stores looking for Twinkies. They’re really nasty, but I love them. It’s that sponge cake and that weird oily filling. I don’t know, it just works for me. I make my kids hide them from me. I love pie too – those Hen House pies you can take home.

What’s one food you hate? I loathe canned green beans. They’re really disgusting to me, the color and the texture.

Is there a moment in a restaurant that you’ll never forget? Kitchen people are weird people. You form weird bonds and relationships that only kitchen people understand. Chef Erika Davis is my mentor. She’s a really good friend and when I go work with her we fall back into routines. The first thing we do is steal from the main kitchen. We steal eggs and bacon and make breakfast. And then we go start working.

Besides your own place, where do you like to go out to eat? I like to try to go to smaller places. A lot of time it’s after work. I like Port Fonda. They have a fundito queso on their late night menu and I like their drinks. Jasper’s – that’s my favorite. I like their lobster bisque. I could drink it. It’s delicious. If I’m on my way home, I might grab rolls at Drunken Fish. If I go to a place, it’s usually for one thing.

What’s the best barbecue in town and what are you ordering?  Do I get to pick and choose? Gates is the Kansas City barbecue place. I’d get ribs or brisket from there. Then I’d go to Jack Stack, and get the shrimp, salmon and baked beans. OK Joe’s has good meat too. I’d get pork from them. You can’t just go to one. I don’t think Kansas City has a barbecue restaurant that has everything. Oh, but at Gates, I’d get the strawberry soda with no ice. It’s not barbecue unless you have strawberry soda.

[Waffle image via Facebook: Magnolia’s]

Jonathan Bender

Jonathan Bender is the founder of The Recommended Daily.

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