On his blog, Food Nomad (foodnomad.net), Leandro Lagera covers the food scene in Baltimore and beyond, and he doesn’t shy from controversy, either, often addressing the complicated ways race mixes with food. He talked with Chef David Thomas of Ida B’s Table about the intersections of cuisine and race, the barriers chefs of color face in the restaurant industry, and more. Thomas didn’t hold back with his answers. [Editor’s note: The Baltimore Beat has partnered with The Real News Network, which houses Ida B’s Table.]
Leandro Lagera: Why is it important to have a soul food restaurant in Baltimore?
David Thomas: A better question is why do we need to have an Ida B’s Table here in Baltimore. Ida B’s Table is about reclaiming history and continuing a culinary journey since we landed on these shores from Africa. Through food, we’re refreshing the narrative about the African-American experience and bringing that to the Baltimore community. As everyone who lives here knows, we’re more than “The Wire.” For a blue collar city like Baltimore, one that’s majority minority, we get very little representation in the national food scene. To get the attention we deserve, we have to tell a very compelling story. Ida B. Wells is that story. Her biography and her life’s work couldn’t be more relevant to this day and time. We try to create a place that does justice to her legacy.
LL: I saw you posted something on Facebook about celebrity chef John Besh and sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. How rampant do you think the problem is? What can be done to fix it?
DT: I think like in any other industry, when you have men that wield power they’re going to find a way to abuse it. The restaurant industry is not an exception to that. Now that being a celebrity chef is a thing, they think they’re bigger than they are and create these whole eco-systems that center around them. We all work so many hours in close quarters, you can easily end up crossing a line. This isn’t a surprise to anyone in the industry. It is more widespread than we know, because most people don’t say anything and these men in power aren’t about to give that power up willingly. How do we change it? We need to elevate more women to management or ownership. Chain restaurants or corporate environments have HR departments, but private entities don’t have those checks and balances. That’s part of the reason why this culture is so pervasive. The way to change that culture is to keep talking about it. And for men to talk about it to each other. I should not be the only one talking about John Besh in Baltimore. You’ve got to be willing to stand up and say what’s uncomfortable.
LL: We hear a lot about how significant the immigrant contribution is to restaurants. What is your viewpoint on that and how has the current political climate affected this?
DT: The immigrant contribution can’t be overstated. There’s not a restaurant in the country that doesn’t benefit from immigrant work, from the hot dog stand on the corner to the best restaurants in the country. If we didn’t have immigrant labor, I doubt we’d have a world class food scene. I know it definitely wouldn’t be run as efficiently as it is. It’s a stereotype, but from my experience: They work hard. They care about what they do. My sous chef is from Oaxaca, Mexico. Francisco [De Los Santos, who has since left and ben succeeded by Bruce Fisher] has been working with me for seven years. I brought him to Ida B’s Table because he knows me, he knows how to run my kitchen, and he’s a smart, intelligent cook. Dylan [Ubaldo] . . . brings a reverence for his Filipino culture that I admire, so I’m happy to train him to get him where I want him to be. . . . I’m excited to work with this new-to-me cuisine.
LL: Where do you draw the line about when food is appropriated or when it is a homage to a certain culture?
DT: I think that question goes back to the very founding of this country. When you have an entire economy built on the backs of Africans [who are] shut out from the benefits of that wealth (still to this day having trouble accessing that wealth), it’s very hard to “pay homage.” It’s hard when you see your fingerprints all over something and you don’t get the associated benefit or acknowledgment. What was taken was intellectual property, and it’s a daily struggle to take that back. It’s great for folks to heap praise on this cuisine. Southern food, Creole, Cajun, soul food—the same hands were involved in all those cuisines and it’s the only true American cuisine. And yet, the only thing African-Americans get credit for is the chicken box. Whole hog or whole animal cooking? The next greatest thing in food? Not wasting any part of the animal is no revelation to African Americans. There’s a very prominent restaurant chain in Baltimore that I think is an excellent example of crossing the line from homage to appropriation. I’m not knocking the food—in fact, I’m friendly with the chef and respect her work. It’s named after an African-American woman, and they’re using her recipes, but she never had an ownership stake. Her children come into the restaurant named for her, and they pay for their meals. It’s been so ingrained in the American psyche that that’s OK.
Not to go too off-topic, but I think the current administration is proof that this way of thinking isn’t going away. You can pay homage by cooking at home, trying to recapture what you’ve come to love about other cultures. We all do that and should do that. I do that with German, Italian, Asian foods. I love learning about what different continents do to the same ingredients.
LL: For a city that’s 70 percent black, Baltimore’s food scene seems to be primarily recognized nationally (though this is changing slightly) for restaurants like The Charleston and Woodberry Kitchen. Is there a cultural ceiling for recognition in Baltimore for more culturally diverse restaurants?
DT: Absolutely, there’s a ceiling. We can hope for the best and keep working, but there are two things that have to be recognized. One: There are some amazing African-American chefs working in Baltimore. We just need to talk about them more (in columns like these, for instance!) Two: There are many restaurants that focus on cooking what they know, for their community. Is their plating and presentation as thoughtful as the work that goes into cooking the food? Maybe not. We have to decide as a culture, or as part of the national food scene, what’s actually important to us. Are we going to make space for places that don’t have white tablecloths? I see Ekiben out there getting notice. Land of Kush has gotten some wonderful write-ups recently. I’d also like to give a shout-out to Chef Rey [Eugenio] at Points South Latin, my friend Audiel [Vera] who is now running Avenue Kitchen & Bar. And, of course, you can’t leave out Chef Damian [Mosley] at Blacksauce Kitchen.