At Café Mills are, from left, assistant manager Jasmine Martin, manager Terry Harris and chef/owner James Mitchell. (Photo by Jim Harris)

by Jim Harris

Chef James Mitchell is a man on a mission — to develop connoisseurs of healthy eating. James is the owner-operator of Café Mills at 6440 Greene St. in Mt. Airy, which is open seven days a week. The cafe occupies both floors of the beautifully renovated Upsal Train Station on the Chestnut Hill West line, and serves vegetarian, vegan and heart-healthy foods.

Mitchell moved the café to its present location from its previous home at Sherman Mills in East Falls last July because he needed more room and because he liked the “ambience, culture, diversity and serenity” of the Mt. Airy setting.

The 55-year-old Mitchell, who has two children and two grandchildren, two of whom work at the café, was born in North Philly and attended Ben Franklin High School and Antioch College. He has been a vegan for two years and a vegetarian most of his life, and has a family history of chefs and restaurateurs.

At the age of 18 he began working with his grandfather, who operated one of the first minority-owned barbecue eateries in Philadelphia. During the 10 years he worked with his grandfather, James learned about food prep and operating a business. Later, he worked at Horn & Hardart, initially as a short order cook and eventually as a line cook. He also worked in the catering business.

During the ‘80s James was introduced to the vegetarian and vegan eating lifestyle. “I met some folks in 1983,” he said, “at the Natural Foods Eatery (1345 Locust St., no longer there), who made me appreciate and enjoy that type of food.” Eventually, he began to work in the catering field with his specialties being gourmet and heart-healthy foods. As a result of the favorable responses, he decided to use his knowledge and expertise in a number of nonprofit ventures.

From 2003 to 2006, he ran a health and nutrition program, “Safe Passage Through Synergy,” which went to different Philly schools and taught kids about healthy eating alternatives. Presently, James provides breakfast to the residents of the nearby Cliveden Nursing Home, and every Thursday he prepares heart-healthy meals which are given free of charge to less fortunate individuals as part of the Presbyterian Church’s “Heavenly Harvest Meals” program at 60th and Master Streets in West Philly. He is also on the Program Advisory Committee for Starr Career Academy’s culinary program and provides internship supervision to future graduates.

James is a member of the Enon Baptist Church on Cheltenham Avenue in West Oak Lane, where he prepares food for their “Temple Builders” ministry, whose mission is to “provide a spiritually based fitness program focused on the ideal of honoring the human body as a fit and healthy temple.” A number of the congregation have also been coming to the Café Mills for meals during their 40 day, no-meat, no-sugar fast.

Every third Friday Café Mills is host to a Professional Women’s breakfast, and on 3rd Friday evenings, a movie-and-dinner combo called “Soul Food Cinema” is served up. In 2011, for the second year in a row, Chef James won the annual East Falls Chili Cook-Off. His vegan chili is now a signature item and a frequent request on the menu. His signature smoothie drink is the famous “Green Machine” featuring spinach, avocado, banana, hemp protein, and more. Café Mills’ extensive menu also includes breakfast, sandwiches, soups, salads, entrees, pizza, desserts and several types of meatless burgers. Their winter hours are Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday, 10-6, and Sunday, 10-4.

James continues to do catering and also rents out the top floor of the Cafe for private events (BYOB). The upstairs space seats 60 people and has a stage with lighting and sound systems. This summer he plans to open up the take-out shop across the tracks from the café to sell fruits, beverages and smoothies. He’s also teaching two courses through the Mt. Airy Learning Tree, “Cooking For Life” and “Juice Your Way to a Healthier You.” Both courses began March 9 (215-843-6333).

When I asked Chef Mitchell how he finds time to do so many things, he said, “This is my passion; feeding people good, healthy food.”

For more information, call 215-849-7771 or visit www.cafemills.com