Episode 1: 'This is Soul Food'

Chef David & Tonya Thomas at Ida B.'s Table | Baltimore, MD

Chef David and Tonya Thomas

Ida B's Table | Baltimore, MD

 What is "modern soul food?"  In this first short film, Chef David Thomas,   2020 Grand Champion of Food Network's 'Chopped'  and General Manager, Tonya Thomas  explain how they work  together.

Interview Excerpts



In many of the articles we read about you, you talked about your grandmother inspired you. How did she influence your current approach to making modern soul food?

DT>> My grandmother Ada Poole Thomas [assumed spelling] was part Blackfoot Indian. She owned a number of acres of Howard County, which is now considered Columbia, Maryland. Back then it was called Jonestown and now it's called Thunder Hill, I believe it is, right outside of Howard High School's, her property was right across the street. You know, she had her own farm. I mean, she foraged. She grew. She slaughtered. She grinded her own salt. Made her own root beer. She had orchards right off her property, well right next to the driveway, I should say, pears and apples and these crazy crab apples and yeah, I mean -- And I knew once I got into cooking that I wanted to kind of follow that vein of knowing exactly where your food came from. She went to the store for very little and I was probably in my early teens, you know, when I, you know, really kind of started thinking about, you know, food, you know, as a more or a more sustainable practice of food, I should say.

 What was her personality like?

DT>> Oh, she was vibrant. This woman was -- I mean, imagine, African-American and Native American. I don't think I need to say any more. She was, you know, she was one of those people that didn't take any stuff. She said exactly what she meant but she was also very passionate about her family, obviously about her food. I think just about the history behind our people, I think it was important to her. So, you know, like I said, when I got into cooking, that stuff became important to me also.


>> Let's talk about Baltimore. Describe the food scene in Baltimore.

DT>> The food scene in Baltimore-- It's growing. You know, I always tell people that come here, you know, we are not DC and then we're not New York.  Baltimore's food scene reminds me of a bit more like Philly. Still gritty, still blue collar, you got some innovative people doing some things. It's not quite New York and it's not quite [Washington] DC.  DC now has kind of surpassed Baltimore in terms of its food scene and, you know, the offerings down there.  I don't know how long it'll take for us to get to, you know, even at DC level but I think it's slowly growing and it's moving forward.  


So what did you want, what at that time did you want Ida B's to offer to Baltimore? What were you looking to contribute?

DT>> Historical context behind food. I mean, this projects always, always for me has been about us reclaiming the narrative. And we want to put out a good plate of food. Obviously, that had to be, you know, part of what we do. But more importantly for me was the history behind the food, how it was African-American s who really created the only true cuisine of this country, you know, and you can call it soul food or southern food or barbecue or Creole, I even venture to say Cajun, it was all created by the hands of slaves and I wanted to make sure that we had a place that told that story.


Every great comedian has spoken of nights where their new material falls flat on stage. Have you ever had a moment where a dish you introduced worked for you but, it didn't work for the customer?

>> Yeah, it's happened. You know, it's, you know, with any creative person, I mean, you are speculating. Food, like I said, is very personal to people. So, you know, what I like, what I enjoy, what my, you know, palate tells me is good may not be for everybody. So, you know, I'll make a dish and I'll throw it on our specials menu for the weekend and I'll sell one or two or, you know, I'm thinking, what is going on. I mean, are the servers not pushing it or are they not describing it right and, you know, it just may not be the flavor profiles of the masses. And I'm sure every chef goes through that. You know, you create something because you want something a little different. You have these core ingredients that you were just tired of doing the same way, so you try something a little different and sometimes you hit the mark, sometimes you don't. And you get that in the feedback from the guests. You know, some will tell you, oh, no, it's just, I just didn't enjoy it or I was expecting this, you know, so yeah, but I mean, I think you just have to be prepared for that. if you are in the food business and you are cooking at a certain level, if you want to be creative, you're going to have to accept the fact that sometimes what you create is not going to be well received. You just go back to the drawing board. Do something different or take that dish and refine it, change a few elements on it, re-present it and see it that works, you know, if that's what you want to do. Sometimes you just scrap it all together and do something different.


Do you feel a responsibility as an African-American chef and restaurateur to push the envelope and sometimes to expose black audiences to 'new' or unexpected dishes?

DT>> Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think -- Listen, you know, one of my biggest sellers here is fried chicken and re-fried catfish. You know, as a chef, as a creative, you get tired of cooking the same thing, you know. And [inaudible] my wife would say I want to pull off the menu but we'd have a mutiny. You know, we may not get guests to come back in again. So you have to keep those core things that are your top sellers on the menu. And then you have to be able to play around and sometimes you push the envelop too far that just doesn't work and sometimes you straddle a line enough where, you know, you got one foot in, you know, tradition and one foot in fantasy and creativity and sometimes that balance is perfect, sometimes it's not.

 The most difficult part of my career has been, you know, being pigeonholed, really. And it's self-inflicted into wanting to cook what I consider southern soul food. I have a broader vision of what that is but I've got to take these baby steps in order to get people to understand that because right now the concept of soul is  still stuck in a very traditional sense of, you know, what collard greens should be, what fried chicken should be, you know, what peas and rice should be.

 I have a different vision of that but I've got to take these subtle steps, in my opinion, to get people beyond that.  



 Tell us how you first fell in love with cooking and made the transition from your early interests in fashion and dance?

TT>>  That was a long journey [laughs], because I went from dance, I guess, that's the of course artistic expression, and then I went into fashion and art, and fell in love with cooking, probably -- Fell in love with cooking, I want to say because of my grandmother. 

You know, back when I was in junior high school I'm going to say, because I know they call it middle school, junior high school, but we had Home Economics  and I remember taking cooking classes.  I fell in love with cooking, because my grandmother would say some of the things that she loved to eat, and I said I wanted to learn how to cook this for you, and some of the things I did for her, she loved. And I was like, oh, I think I like this! 

It was something I played around with. Still wasn't fully into it until I got older, then I fell in love with making or creating things, and seeing when people enjoyed the food that I make, and that just made me happy. So it's something I guess I didn't think I would get the same as going into fashion. The same thing, but eventually it led to family members saying, 'Oh, you know how to cook, you should have a catering business."  I would say that's two different things. But the more I got into cooking and doing things for family, and then eventually, I guess I used the experience I learned and working in businesses, to go into making a catering business. So that was, I think the first step. 

I just fell in love with making people happy with food.


What has it been like for you as a black woman in the food industry?

TT>> Hmmm. I...would probably say it's difficult.

 I know there's not a lot of us in the industry, especially in management positions. That was why I was appealed--someone had appealed to me to make sure that I signed up in organizations to reflect that I am a general manager of a restaurant, and I'm a black female, because there's not a lot of us out there. There's not a lot of black executive chefs as well. So, I'm not sure where the lack of or why there's a lack of them. And I think most of them will say they're not given the opportunities. And that is probably true.

 I think I've always been one, don't want to say push my way in [laughs], I just--but I just mean I think of when I wanted to go into the restaurant industry, I didn't have restaurant experience, but I was going to knock on somebody's door to give me the chance.  I guess I was fortunate and blessed that I had owners, and executive chefs that when they brought me on, they wanted to show me everything. You don't always have that. You have some that almost want to keep women in their place, regardless of their color. You know, whether black or white. And it still exists. 

I don't know how or when that will change, unfortunately it takes the person. You know, we could do a lot of--there's just a lot of women standing up and trying to make those changes. What is probably going to help change it is more women that own the restaurants. 


>> What is the most challenging part of being  General Manager of Ida B's Table 

TT>> I think you have to realize that it's, for me, in managing a restaurant and being a general manager is knowing all the people that rely on you in what you do. That's the key thing. If it was just--having a space, and I'm just worrying about myself and David, it's different. But that's not the case here. We have a staff of almost 40, so that means 40 people rely on what we're doing here, and it makes you work harder to make it successful, because if we don't succeed, they don't have a job. You know? And that's not something that we want to ever have to tell anyone that you don't have a job anymore. So it just makes you work harder to make it the best that you can possibly make it.

>>  What do you want your legacy to be in the food industry?

>> You know, I've never thought about me leaving a legacy in the industry. Believe it or not. I think...people always remind me about what I do, here, I think--I do see us, you know, David and I, as in partnership and equal in doing what we're doing. But, I think I've always been the person to support him, and leave his legacy, and all that he's done over the years, as far as being a chef.

I guess the legacy...is that you know, is, I guess, that we created a space that people felt like they were coming back home to. That's what I always wanted, after--you know, people that come here, that are from the south, they've moved here, and it kind of reminds them of being back home, and what we're doing in this space, if we can kind of create that for people that don't have a way of going back home, or they miss home, or this is their home away from home, what we bring and do in this space, then that would be a great legacy.