MOORHEAD—Akua Hutchison's first attempts at cooking weren't good enough to feed to the family dog.
The native of the West African nation of Ghana said she liked to try to cook as a child. She'd cut an empty milk can into a makeshift pot, build a fire and heat up tomatoes, onions, rice and anything else she could swipe from her mother's kitchen.
But she kept at it, and Hutchison said she knew she was onto something in the mid-1990s when the London pastor she was living with approved of her food.
Now, she's serving up her takes on African and Caribbean fare at her new restaurant in Moorhead.
The Spice Grille, 28 Center Mall Ave., opened its doors Nov. 24, and Hutchison said it's had a good response so far. She's not advertised much yet, saying she wanted to have a quieter start so she and the staff could find their groove.
"Knowing how to cook and running a restaurant are two different things," she said.
Hutchison did catering gigs in Atlanta before moving to Fargo-Moorhead in 2013.
She and her husband came here to do ministry, both serving as pastors at Moorhead's Word International Church, and she said she was cooking three-course meals for congregants each Sunday for free.
But she wanted a restaurant, and said things fell into place once she found this spot.
Hutchison originally thought about opening inside the former 94 Liquors next to the church, but said it was too financially difficult—the old liquor store didn't have a kitchen, and she would have to invest $200,000 to make it work.
The property owner suggested she instead consider the Center Mall Avenue strip mall unit, which most recently was home to i.d.k. Contemporary Fine Dining before it closed Oct. 7. The space was the longtime home of Sarello's before that.
"I walked in here and I was like, 'Are you kidding me, if I want it?' " she said with a laugh. "This is a blessing. Everything was in here."
That included a full kitchen, tables, chairs and even some of the art on the walls.
Hutchison said she'll add decor to give the place more of an African vibe, though she said she wants to keep its upscale atmosphere intact. African restaurants tend to be "not classy," she said, the kind of place where patrons walk out smelling like the food that's being cooked.
"My thing has always been that if you had a guest who wants to come eat African food, you shouldn't be ashamed to come to a place," she said.
Hutchison said she'll soon get a beer and wine license, and she'd also like to see the restaurant host events or private gatherings in its small private room.
The name, The Spice Grille, is a nod to Hutchison's love of spice—a lot of spice, meaning flavor, that she said is at the heart of this type of cuisine.
Her restaurant serves some Caribbean dishes, such as curry goat or chicken and jerk chicken. Most of the menu focuses on African flavors, including dishes like peanut butter soup, fufu, which is a dough-like ball made of plantain flour, and jollof rice, a rice and tomato dish she likened to jambalaya.
The business is another time-consuming obligation for Hutchison, who is a mother to five younger kids in addition to serving as a pastor. But she said it's worth the effort to share her passion for cooking.
"Food brings people from different cultures together," she said. "That's what it's all about."
What: The Spice Grille
Where: 28 Center Mall Ave., Moorhead
Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday
Phone: (218) 477-1112