By David Perlmuttdperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com
Posted: Thursday, Jun. 10, 2010
For a woman raised in Detroit, Minnie Raynes Alexander sure could cook Southern.
As in the best fried chicken you'd ever bitten into, her fans and family say.
Or silver-dollar-sized biscuits like your grandma baked.
And if there were ever a macaroni-and-cheese Olympics, she'd surely take home the gold.
Armentia "Minnie" Raynes Alexander was a chef for the Harper's Restaurant Group, working her culinary magic and glowing smile in the kitchens of most of the company's establishments, including two - the now-closed Blue Ribbon BBQ and Harper's Grill - in what used to be called the Interstate building near The Square uptown.
Last week, she was killed two blocks from work when her car collided with two trees on Sharon Road near SouthPark mall. Her family says she must have fallen asleep, or passed out, but otherwise have little information about what caused the one-car accident.
She was 48, survived by her husband, Joe Joe, six children and 11 grandchildren on whom she doted. A 12th grandchild was on the way.
She also left behind a legion of grieving food fans.
"My mother showed her love for people through her cooking," said daughter RoseAnn Barrera, an oncology research nurse at Presbyterian Hospital. "Every time she came to my house, she brought food. If you went to her house, she always had lots of food to eat.
"If she knew a friend was sick, she'd take her food."
Cooking for friends
Apparently, she loved a lot of people - she was constantly cooking for them.
Her family doesn't know where she learned to cook so well or how she took to Southern fare like she'd grown up eating it.
After high school in Detroit, she joined the Army, serving in Germany but never as a cook.
It wasn't until she moved to Charlotte after her discharge in 1985 that she became a serious chef, her daughter said.
She began as a prep cook at a Harper's on Woodlawn Road in 1991, left for a few years, then returned to work her way up to chef, said Tom Sasser, president of Harper's Restaurant Group.
She was mostly self-taught, learning on the job. She quickly showed a flair for figuring out recipes and making customers feel welcome, often making appearances in the dining room to trade fresh stories about her grandchildren.
She was always free to give cooking advice. Maybe it was the smile, but she had a way of connecting.
"Minnie knew how to make comfort food to where it meant something," Sasser said. "It almost had a personality. ... The way she cooked food evoked memories of my childhood, as I'm sure it did for many of our customers."
It did for Phyllis Farr, a property administrator for Spectrum Properties, the company that manages 121 West Trade, the former Interstate building. Alexander was chef for the two restaurants on the ground floor. She never fried up okra without calling Farr to let her know when it would be ready.
"If you were going to write a song about Minnie, it would have to be called 'Minnie Put the Soul in Soul Food,'" Farr said. "She put her heart and soul, as well as her culinary expertise, into her food. ... She was always willing to do whatever it took to nourish and nurture everyone."
If ever Spectrum's Pat Wynne needed food for a meeting with a new tenant, she'd run downstairs to Minnie.
"She was always willing to accommodate," Wynne said. "The tenants loved her - she treated them like family. Her death is a real loss to a lot of people. She touched so many lives."
Food and family
Alexander and her husband, Joe Joe, met at Harper's uptown Mimosa Grill 13 years ago. They were married for seven years and were building a catering business when she was killed.
Their lives were built around food and family.
"Her greatest joy was having the whole family at the house and cooking for them," Joe Joe said. "She loved watching people eat her food.
"I don't know where she learned to fry chicken. Whoever taught her, I'm thankful."
Daughter RoseAnn is pregnant with Minnie's 12th grandchild.
It's a girl. She'll be named for her grandmother.