STRONG CHEF is a series dedicated to exploring the contemporary experiences and careers of Black chefs in America. In this interview, I sit down with chef David Thomas of Ida B’s Table.
Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a cloudy and somewhat chilly day in downtown Baltimore. I am right outside Ida B’s Table where chef David Thomas and his wife Tonya Thomas own and operate this restaurant dedicated to the memory of Civil Rights leader and Jim Crow era investigative journalist Ida B. Wells.
Strong Chef, as a series is meant to provide insight into the culinary world rarely seen in major publications because Black, Brown and female chefs don’t get the same media coverage their White male counterparts enjoy. Not a complaint per se, just noting a reality many are uncomfortable discussing.
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Chef David and I trade a couple of text messages letting him know I am in front of the restaurant. Within minutes, he comes to the front door and greets me with a warm and welcoming smile of brotherhood. You see, I too am a chef, but I have transitioned away from the kitchen to the role of photographer and writer focusing on the culinary arts, chefs, and restaurants.
It’s a beautiful space. Has the feel of a library, study, and place to hold interviews all rolled into one. There are old school typewriters, a piano and a wall of books from authors of old and new. The room is simply comfortable and a perfect location to hold an interview. And so the interview begins.
Where are you originally from? I seem to hear New York in your accent.
I was born in Baltimore and spent my early years here before moving to Jamaica Queens in New York City. I moved back to Baltimore as an adult. I have family roots here.
How long have you been cooking professionally and what did you do before becoming a chef?
I’ve been cooking for 27 years and prior to that I was a musician. I’m a classically trained pianist. I thought I wanted to be a professional at one point.
Who are the biggest influences on your style of cooking?
Wow, this might be a long list. There are so many. I’ll start with Auguste Escoffier, Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller, my grandma, and many, many others. I’d also like to mention Nathanial Burton, Edna Lewis, Carla Hall, Kevin Mitchell, B.J. Dennis to name a few Black American chefs I have deep respect for.
What direction would you like to see the food and beverage industry go in general and on a local basis?
We need more kitchen talent. The Food Network and these reality cooking shows have hurt the industry in some ways. I know I’ve benefited from my appearance on Chopped but for many young cooks, these shows give a false impression of the industry.
Young cooks are coming into the industry expecting to be head chefs and their addiction to social media doesn’t help either. They’re equating social media “likes” to actually being a proficient cook. They’re not the same. We need to have home economics taught in schools again.
We need more things that lend themselves to a career path in the industry. Culinary school is not for everyone for many reasons and some of the best chefs I know never attended. They started working in kitchens and learned from the inside out. We need cooks who are humble, willing to study and want to learn.
I’ve been cooking for a long time and I still struggle with calling myself a chef although others do. Who am I to say I’m better than any other chef? I know, I’m a chef but I don’t think I’m better than any other chef.
Talk about the challenges you’ve faced throughout your career especially as a Black chef working in an industry dominated by White male chefs in both the kitchen and the media?
My challenges as they relate to race have been more passive than directly aggressive. Our industry is no different than the larger society. I would get questions like, “Do you have the skills?” Mind you, my White counterparts more often than not didn’t get asked the same question. Constantly being second-guessed was probably the biggest issue I had.
What I would say is that Latinos are the backbone of this industry but how they’re treated is another issue altogether. This is why I’m a big fan of the work that chef José Andrés is doing within his restaurants and with One World Kitchen.
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What advice do you have for up and coming cooks who want to become chefs?
Get back to your roots. Know your farmer. Know your [food] source. Be willing to do anything that’s required [for the job]. Be willing to work hard without any recognition. Understand there’s no democracy in the kitchen. This work is no cake walk.
To read the full interview with Thomas that includes his favorite dishes to prepare, pet peeves in the kitchen, how he deals with social media reviews and what’s next for the restaurant, visit my blog on Medium. You can also follow me on Instagram as I continue to capture more chef stories through photos.