Bronco footballer returns to campus as BBQ stand-out
When the double grills billow out white smoke, the parking lot fills up fast a couple miles from Waldo Stadium, where defensive end Jarrell McKinney played three seasons for Western Michigan University.
Now “Chef Rell,” he has traded the pass rush for the life of a traveled entrepreneur, owning and partnering in a half-dozen catering, private dining, and food preparation businesses around the state.
With his new House of Soul and Seafood, 2627 W. Michigan Ave., he is already serving crowds of Broncos and the community at a popular campus intersection.
The recipes are influenced by the hand-crafted spice mixing he picked up in Denmark, techniques learned in southern U.S. restaurants, and “the type of flavor that I bring from what my family has taught me,” McKinney says.
The Detroit-native has chosen Kalamazoo as his culinary home.
“I’ve always had great clientele no matter how long I move away,” McKinney says. “I was always able to sell food and sellout every time. That’s why I started to take it serious.”
House of Soul and Seafood brings McKinney full circle from when the police would be called due to the cars lined up around the block for their orders from his Kalamazoo off-campus apartment in 2016.
The official opening is scheduled for the second half of July, when McKinney and his team – and he emphasizes his success is not a solo endeavor – plan a robust menu of his catering and private dining staples, rotating specials, and beer and wine for take-out and delivery from what years ago was a 7-Eleven.
For now, fans follow media posts of dishes and sides that give a brief glimpse of the menu and the day it will be served. Ordering ahead is suggested, and walk-up customers get lucky the few days a week House of Soul and Seafood is open.
Under a pop-up tent next to the grills, chafing pans of food are quickly hauled from one place to another. The parking lot is already half-full a full half-hour before the official pick-up time for pre-orders, with people hopping out of cars to find a place in line themselves.
One patron, dressed in daring white pants for BBQ, waits patiently but with interest as her order is assembled. When asked how she heard about House of Soul and Seafood as she stepped up to get her rib tip dinner: “I didn’t,” she responds. “I just saw what was happening and want to support people doing their thing.”
Muhammad Deme and two friends take their place in line, calling out to “D-1K”, a nickname from the gridiron that he uses for his chef’s Instagram account and private catering business.
“I’ve been following him since he was cooking out of his apartment,” says Deme.
On this day, the Mac & Cheese has a crust dotted with herbs and a roasted flavor from a secret cheese combination that Chef Rell confided so long as it didn’t get published. The pasta was firm and infused with a mild, familiar sauce. The Green Beans with Turkey was long-simmered in chicken broth and invoked memories of Thanksgiving but with a smoky character.
The Garlic Herb Shrimp carried a hint of sweet and sour citrus punch and a brightness that was a nice contrast to the subtle notes of smoke. The shrimp were jumbo but impressively tender and carrying flavor. “You start your marinade with a little bit of ice so that it can absorb the flavor,” McKinney says. There’s a nice snap and give when you tug at the tail, belying the tenderness of the meat – a real feat when you consider the heat level put out by direct BBQ.
The Jerk Chicken delivered clean heat with notes of cumin, coriander, and garlic in the rub. A good portion of the chicken was sauceless, making it easy to savor the spice. Despite the intensity of smoke, this all-white meat chicken breast was moist and offered flavor throughout.
“My mom taught me that you don’t use a whole breast,” McKinney says. “You have to slice it in half, because you know it will only dry out if you try to cook it whole.”
Wet naps were necessary to confront the sauced Jerk Wings, Rack of Ribs and Rib Tips. It was a sweet melody of heat. The North Carolina tomato-based sauce provided a backbone with a pleasant tang, the tell-tale smoke ring penetrating deep into the meat. As promised, the spare ribs were packed with flavor and easily fell off the bone, and the tips were deeply smoky with big BBQ flavor.
At the bottom of every entree was a standard American hot dog bun.
“This is a hallmark of soul food,” McKinney says. “Every serving I make comes with bread, whether that’s a slice or a bun – even when I serve cornbread, we add more bread. It soaks up all the sauce and flavor and really, when I think about it, it makes another meal on top of the meal you bought.”
‘We’re going to make it with food’
In 2016, McKinney graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports management and signed on with the Houston Texans’ training camp, but never played NFL ball. He did play and coach in Denmark for the Aarhus Tigers, an American football team, then semi-pro back in the States – building his recipes along the way.
At 6-foot-5, McKinney looms quiet and calm in the center of the action at the start of an evening’s dinner rush, moving deliberately with concentration but no stress on his brow.
“If you ask me, it seems like where he came from, having 30 people in a restaurant is not chaos for him, it’s not a tough situation, he takes that in stride,” says current Bronco defensive coordinator Lou Esposito, who was coaching the WMU defensive line when McKinney was recruited out of Detroit’s Cody High School.
“Cody was tough, I’m not going to lie, not the playing but the kids,” McKinney says. “I was coming from a different neighborhood; we were about to fight a lot when I first got there.”
Still, he was focused, says his mother, Karen McKinney. He’d observe her in the kitchen, obviously taking mental notes.
“We’d been around a lot of drugs, we’d been homeless, he saw us struggling, and he said ‘Mom, if I don’t make it at football, we’re going to make it with food,” she recalls. “He’s never let challenges get him down.”
Three weeks before heading to Denmark in 2016, his television stopped working in his Kalamazoo apartment.
“So, I went in my freezer and cooked all of the crab legs and seafood I had and made Seafood Alfredo and it sold out,” he says. He promoted it on Snapchat, the social media of choice at the time, for $15 a plate.
“The cops even came, because I had a line of cars around the block lined up to get my food,” he says. “That’s how it all started.”
Once in Denmark, he recognized another layer of quality for his cooking. “I learned about organic food, everything there is organic, and they didn’t have grilling seasoning, you had to make your seasoning.” Shortly after, he returned to play for the Bloomington Edge in Illinois, then for the Greensboro-based Carolina Cobras, where he really defined his BBQ cooking style and his seafood sauce.
“Growing up we ate a lot of crab legs and lobster, I always loved it, I used to watch them make it all the time,” he says. “And then I finally figured it out once I went down south.”
When it was time to finalize unique recipes for the House of Soul and Seafood, he knew which coach to turn to.
“When he was putting together his recipes, he called me to ask about my Mac & Cheese and I shared my mother’s recipe with him,” Karen McKinney says. “He combined me and my sister and my mom’s recipes together with his own ideas.”
McKinney gives credit to his football coaches and mentors in his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., for adding life principles that grounded himself to become an entrepreneur. When McKinney returned to Kalamazoo, he would cook food for the new students at the fraternity and on the defensive line like he had been.
“He talked to the players about day-to-day life as a student, players from a different area being in Kalamazoo now,” Coach Esposito says.
Since returning to Kalamazoo in 2019, he’s continued his home-cooking and BBQ ventures, and got into catering and private dining. Twice a week he provides meals, customized by the team’s dietician, to the Michigan State University football program (thanks to referrals by two students who transferred from WMU, where they first tasted Chef Rell’s cooking).
McKinney also produces a trio of popular sauces for seafood, lamb, and Caribbean Jerk dishes which, after the restaurant opens its doors, he plans to get health department approval for scale production and begin formal distribution at House of Soul and into grocery stores.
Standing in his partially completed restaurant in late May, McKinney explains how his business partners have combined to shoulder the weight of opening up a restaurant: Eddie Anderson III, a longtime local barber and entrepreneur himself, is a business advisor and helped him sort out the best contractors. Chef Marc Wade, who he met while a student at WMU as well, is a partner in other food ventures, but has helped on the House of Soul and Seafood grill and dealing with the permitting process. McKinney describes Alexis Plair and her son Xavier as both investors and active supporters. Courtney Twyman played crucial roles including welding and installing equipment.
“Without my team,” McKinney says, “I definitely wouldn’t be where I’m at with this business.”
Esposito sees a familiarity in McKinney’s drive as an entrepreneur and chef.
“Jarrell was a great football player,” he says. “He was very goal-oriented and stayed the course. He’s passionate about what he does, just like he was when he was a player at WMU.
“He has that drive.”
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