A Black chef serving you classic Midwestern and Southern dishes with a modern twist and flare.
Written by: Mecca Bos
Jahbri Merritt, aka “Chefwitdaleft” was subject to some lighthearted jokes for being a lefty-- always good naturedly, but he says that being left-handed has been a defining quality of his life:
“I did things a little differently. My creativity comes out a little differently.”
His prepared foods company by the same name is characterized by that ethos:
“Things that stand out and look familiar-- but things that are a little different about it.”
An only child, and an only boy child, Jahbri spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his grandma, and his mom was a “workaholic.” He always wished he had siblings, and says he didn’t have that much time to be a kid because he had to throw in to help around the house so much.
But snapping a lot of peas and green beans with his grandma, who cooked traditional Southern dishes with a twist-- the family was Muslim so no pork-- finally drew him into a dual career in cooking and childhood education.
“I was really drawn to helping out others, especially kids. The job became second nature. I wanted to do things for them that I wish I had growing up.”
Other things he wished he had while growing up: something besides barbeque from his native Kansas City. “I used to joke that all KC had was barbershops and barbeque. And it’s not that I don’t like barbeque, but I just wanted to know what else is out here.”
Alternative, Accessible Ingredients
Chefwitdaleft dishes, ones that marry traditional with modern, decadent with healthy, and expected with unexpected include sweet potato cornbread, stuffed Cocoa Bread (a traditional Jamaican bread preparation made with coconut milk) sandwiches, frybread nachos, and custom pot pies in flavors like lasagne.
He still eschews pork in his cooking-- “never had it, never will”-- and prefers to nod to his native southern roots with alternative ingredients, making sure vegetarians and pescatarians have access too, using lots of legumes, grains, and fish in his cooking.
As a man who grew up learning cuisine from his grandma-- he eventually went on to get a degree from St. Paul College-- he wants to be a role model for other boys who could benefit from seeing another Black man in the kitchen.
Bringing Up the Next Generation of Chefs
“I could be bringing up the next chefs for a different generation,” he says of the 6 years spent as an educator teaching nutrition and cooking classes with the YMCA. He hasn’t left that behind in his heart now that he’s cooking full time. “It could be fun to see the left side of their brains activated!”
In both cooking and youth work, Jahbri says there’s a recipe to doing things right. His differences always “made him stick out like a sore thumb.”
“People would just joke with me a lot and say that doesn’t look right. You don’t know what you’re doing. If something didn’t taste right, they’d say it’s because of that left hand of yours.”
But Jahbri took it all in stride, and he wants to deliver that stride to other people, especially kids.
“They say the left part is the creative part, the artistic side, and I hundred percent believe that. Having my left side of my brain activated firing all of the time. Different, but good different.”
Chefwitdaleft grab-and-go and made-to-order dishes can be found at the Black Market, as well as other popups announced on his Instagram page. Plans for online ordering are projected for this spring, and future plans are that Chefwidaleft prepared foods will be available for purchase all over the state of Minnesota as well as the country.
“I just want there to be more BIPOC products out there with more seasonings!”
Jahbri is also available for private catering services.
Favorite Saint Paul neighborhood: The Rondo Neighborhood and Como-- the vibe is rooted in family and deep culture. Full of local restaurants, schools, churches and art, and of course Como Lake and Parks. It makes you feel at home.