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Chef David Thomas Is Not Here to ‘Elevate’ Soul Food

His Baltimore restaurant incorporates history and sustainability in its tribute to civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells

David Thomas
Photo by Allison Zaucha

Appropriately housed in the same historic Baltimore building as the Real News Network, a progressive, nonprofit media organization, Ida B’s Table opened late August with a similarly progressive inspiration. It’s named after Ida B. Wells, the early civil rights activist, feminist, and journalist.

Chef David Thomas, who has an avid, long-time interest in the evolution of African-American food, initially planned to open a “reinvented, elevated” soul food restaurant honoring Wells. Thomas and his co-owner/wife, Tonya, have worked together for 25 years, most recently at the now-closed Parkville, Maryland restaurant Herb & Soul, where David Thomas was the chef and Tonya Thomas managed the front of house.

But a meeting with another renowned African-American journalist, historian, and food writer, Jessica B. Harris, changed their plans. “She said to me, ‘What makes you think soul food needs to be reinvented or elevated?’” David Thomas says.

The comment stuck, and David Thomas, who manages the restaurant’s culinary direction while Tonya takes charge of the front of house and desserts, instead decided to serve African-American cuisine informed by its history. With his “modern soul food,” the chef wants to embrace the entirety of the black American culinary journey, from food cooked by slaves to the soul food of the 1960s, as well as explore what African-American food means now. The approach earned Ida B’s a three-star review in the Baltimore Sun.

Wells’s portrait, by Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw Jr., hangs in the dining room. The rest of the restaurant’s design also celebrates Baltimore’s African-American heritage and culture, and murals of other black leaders and artists adorn the sleek interior. On weekends, live music floats through the restaurant’s 6,000 square feet, which includes the main dining room, a parlor room that functions as a lounge area, and a drawing room used for private events.

Still only five months old, Ida B’s has also served as a springboard for community projects. Tonya Thomas spent the holidays working to provide art supplies to two local elementary schools, and David Thomas is planning a culinary program that will train young black chefs in sustainable cooking and, ultimately, achieve more industry recognition for people of color. He’s also launching a series of pop-ups with chefs of different culinary backgrounds to bring more diversity to the Baltimore dining scene, most recently hosting Calasag, a Filipino pop-up with musician and chef Dylan Ubaldo.

Eater caught up with David Thomas to discuss cooking modern soul food and what’s in store for Ida B’s Table.

On why he’s cooking Southern food:

“My grandmother is Blackfoot Indian, so I grew up watching her preparing her own foods, slaughtering her own meat, grinding her own salt, making her own root beer. She had apple and pear trees on her farm. I always said when I got into cooking, and I was able to do my own thing, that was the path that I was going down.

“I know farm-to-table is a very clichéd concept now, but it’s really the way the early settlers and those slaves ate. We were the foragers and gatherers. We had to eat what was available to us. I think now it’s this whole concept — the whole-animal cooking, or snout-to-tail cooking, whatever you want to call it — but that’s how people survived. I’ve always been appreciative of that history, watching my grandmother, understanding that she didn’t throw anything away that she found a use for. The smallest bones in a chicken or in a pig: She made things happen with virtually nothing, and that was ingrained in me as I grew up, so I wanted to do the same thing here.”

Fried chicken and biscuits at Ida B’s Table
Photo by Raqui Minwell / courtesy Ida B’s Table

On creating traditional dishes for modern diners:

“We’re adding that new twist on familiar items instead of just doing regular collard greens, [like] doing the Liberian greens completely vegetarian. It’s kind of smoky, kind of sweet, a little spicy, but it’s derived from Liberia where they traditionally put in seafood, some kind of smoked fish or shrimp. But I’m just doing them in a vegetarian way.

“Fried catfish is not a local food; catfish is not indigenous to Maryland, but the Department of Natural Resources has designated this fish an invasive species, so I’ve been working with DNR since 2011 to rid this fish from the [Chesapeake] Bay. We haven’t been very successful but I’m trying to do my small part [while] paying homage to the heritage. Giving recognition to those people who came before me, whether they were cooks, chefs, slaves, grandmothers, whoever they were, that allow me to do what I do: that’s modern soul food for me.”

On true American cuisine:

“If you think about the history of American cuisine, in the very beginning, it was called slave food, because it was the slaves who really were doing the majority of the cooking that was coming out of the South. Even in the North, but predominantly in the South, these slaves were the ones, obviously from Africa, bringing over yams; the natives here helped us cultivate corn, and showed us how to use it. But it was those hands that crafted this cuisine, whether you call it Creole, Cajun, barbecue, Southern, or soul food, it was all created from the hands of slaves.”

On continuing the evolution of soul food:

“I was on a complete mission after [meeting Harris] as far as this opening. And that’s when I really honed in on this concept of modern soul food. It needs to be all of those elements of the past with some of this fusion from the future. Whether it’s dealing with local sustainability or using these ingredients that are not traditionally found in Southern or soul food menus. That’s what I wanted to do.”

On changing the perception of soul food:

“You don’t find many African-American-owned restaurants that have this type of space and are trying to do what we’re doing with the food and the events. The whole vibe here is different. It’s not your typical soul food restaurant. When you hear soul food, you think of the little corner chicken box place, that’s what you think of in Baltimore. But when you hear soul food, and you walk into this place, it changes people’s perceptions, and that’s exactly what we want to do.

“Soul food should be one of those revered cuisines. But unless we, as African-American chefs, change and take hold of the narrative, it’s never going to get the prominence that it’s due. And that’s what I’m going after.”

Shrimp and Grits at Ida B’s Table
Photo by Raqui Minwell / courtesy Ida B’s Table

On cooking Southern food as an African-American chef:

“Personally, as an African-American chef, we don’t get the recognition of other chefs, even though it may be something that we created. And I’m not taking anything away from anybody. I revere some of the greats out there. My wife has spoken to chef Sean Brock who runs Husk and McCrady’s in Nashville and Charleston, James Beard Award winner, and Cindy Wolfe out of Maryland who does a very Southernish-style menu [at Charleston]. I revere all of these chefs. They do some incredible work, but we don’t have the representation as African-American chefs doing our own cuisine. And that for me is one of the things I’m trying to change. I want us to be in the forefront.”

On Baltimore as a food city:

“I think that’s what we need in this country right now; we need to embrace the things that bring us together, and then we are willing to talk about the things that make us different. So I think we’ve got to look at it through the lens of food because food is the natural equalizer. We’ve all got to eat. We all love good food. I might like my food different than you, but it’s amazing to me how so many people with different perspectives come here. I’ve had multimillionaires come here and sit down and eat, and we feed homeless people off the street. They all order the same things. And I’m talking for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, whatever meal you pick.

“I think Baltimore’s got to open up [because it] is a food city to be reckoned with. And the chefs that are here, we have to be willing to take a chance. We’ve got to be willing to put out that dish that nobody else is doing and see if it works.”

Staci Wolfson is a Baltimore-based writer and editor.
Editor: Monica Burton

Ida B’s Table [Official]

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