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2018-05-23 / Featured / Taste

At Ma Michele’s Café, classic Southern fare finds a twist

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER

Michele Wilson has owned and operated Ma Michele's Café at Victorian Square since 2016. JENNY McQUEEN Michele Wilson has owned and operated Ma Michele's Café at Victorian Square since 2016. JENNY McQUEEN When Michele Wilson followed her siblings south in her move from Pennsylvania to Virginia in 1989, it was an unwitting homecoming of sorts.

Years later, while conducting genealogical research, Wilson learned that her paternal grandparents had been born in Petersburg and Lynchburg.

“It’s kind of ironic that we didn’t know that until [much] later in life,” says Wilson, sitting in the dining room of Ma Michele’s Café in her gray chef’s coat. “We all migrated down here.”

A return home isn’t just a surprising coincidence in Wilson’s family history; it’s also a theme of her cuisine, which recreates many of the recipes she learned while sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen in Philadelphia. “You sat in the kitchen and you snapped peas, and you cut collards, and you talked about events in the family,” Wilson says. “That’s where I saw love. That’s where I saw everyone come tighter [together].”

Stuffed with collard greens and topped with Parmesan cheese and a "sweet heat sauce," Ma's Soul Rolls quickly became a best-seller. A second version is filled with macaroni and cheese. JENNY McQUEENStuffed with collard greens and topped with Parmesan cheese and a "sweet heat sauce," Ma's Soul Rolls quickly became a best-seller. A second version is filled with macaroni and cheese. JENNY McQUEENSlide into a chair at Ma Michele’s, located in a nondescript outparcel at Victorian Square Shopping Center on Hull Street Road, and you’ll be greeted by R&B slow jams, photos and paintings from local artists and a somewhat eclectic decor of mismatched chairs and tables, two-person booths and a deep wooden bench.

A glance at the menu quickly reveals the Southern influence of Wilson’s family. Dishes like chicken and waffles, Cajun catfish and meatloaf are the stars of Ma Michele’s soul food bill of fare, served with supporting sides of collard greens, creamed potatoes with gravy, sweet potato casserole and a gooey, baked four-cheese macaroni. Chicken and waffles, a soul food staple, is served with either a cheddar cheese and herb waffle or a chia and hemp waffle.

Soul food, a term for cuisine hailing from the black culture of the southeastern United States with African and Native American influences, found its way north to cities like Philadelphia during the Great Migration, when some six million African-Americans left the South between 1916 and 1970.

“It’s just really good Southern cooking,” Wilson says of her food. “What we tried to bring, really, was my take on coming to my house to eat. Home-cooked food, fresh, jazzy atmosphere.”

Much of Wilson’s cooking falls within the classics of soul food cuisine, but there are a few experimental flourishes on the menu. While suggestion isn’t considered the mother of invention, it did serve as inspiration for Wilson.

One night while closing up the cafe, Wilson received a phone call from a woman requesting egg rolls. Unsure whether the woman had the wrong number or was simply inquiring if they were on the menu, Wilson explained that they didn’t serve egg rolls and hung up the phone. The next morning, Wilson and an employee set about creating one of their most popular items – soul rolls. Ma Michele’s offers two variations on the egg-roll-like delicacies, one filled with collard greens, one filled with four-cheese macaroni. The former is topped with Parmesan cheese and a “sweet heat sauce” – a tangy topping reminiscent of duck sauce. The latter is topped with bacon, cherry tomatoes and ranch dressing.

“They’ve been flying out the door,” Wilson says. “I honestly could not believe how well they did.”

Ma Michele's chicken and waffles, dusted with powdered sugar and served with butter, maple syrup and sweet heat sauce.  JENNY McQUEENMa Michele's chicken and waffles, dusted with powdered sugar and served with butter, maple syrup and sweet heat sauce. JENNY McQUEENAnother surprise for soul food aficionados: aside from the pork chops, you won’t find any pig on the menu. Dishes like collard greens – traditionally made with ham hocks – are instead made with smoked turkey. For dessert, Ma Michele’s offers carrot and pound cake made in-house, as well as cookies and sweet potato pies from local bakeries.

Wilson’s journey to opening Ma Michele’s started while she worked in the mortgage industry, making food for company potlucks. Her coworkers soon asked if she would cater the events all by herself, and before long she was pursuing cooking professionally, working for catering and baking companies.

In 2012, she opened her first location at a now defunct flea market at the 360 West Shopping Center. When the flea market closed, Wilson moved her business to the Market Bazaar in Victorian Square in 2014. After much cajoling by the owner of the shopping center to set up her own storefront, Wilson eventually relented, opening her current space two years ago.

The cuisine isn’t the only draw to Ma Michele’s; the cafe also serves as an event space multiple times a month for live music, poetry readings and open mic nights. Her cafe may provide a haven for all types of artists, but at the end of the day, Wilson just wants to make her customers feel at home.

“Food is an extension of love to me,” Wilson says. “That is what I grew up believing. It was all-inclusive.” ¦

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