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“Crave the familiarity of comfort food” With Angela Davis & Chef Vicky Colas

Most people crave the familiarity of comfort food. If you can serve them something that conjures up memories of grandparents, or a vacation they loved, or happy times in childhood, they will go crazy. My most popular recipes are all classic homestyle recipes. I might tweak the technique slightly or encourage folks to seek out […]

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Most people crave the familiarity of comfort food. If you can serve them something that conjures up memories of grandparents, or a vacation they loved, or happy times in childhood, they will go crazy. My most popular recipes are all classic homestyle recipes. I might tweak the technique slightly or encourage folks to seek out the best ingredients they can get their hands on, but I don’t stray too far from the original. Just enough to make that dish the best possible version of itself. I’ve gotten comments like “I haven’t had turkey wings since my mom passed and your recipe came close to hers.” That’s powerful. I enjoy helping people foster those kinds of positive memories through food.

As part of our series about the lessons from Inspirational BIPOC Chefs & Restaurateurs, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Angela Davis, a celebrated food blogger (The Kitchenista Diaries), self-taught cook, author of four self-published digital cookbooks, and mom of two. A former construction accountant, Angela monetized her platform and transitioned to a full-time career in the food industry as a digital content creator, recipe developer and freelance private chef. She’s since partnered with national brands such as Whole30, Home Depot, BJ’s, and Weber, and has been published by The Washington Post, Shondaland, Wine Enthusiast, and Food & Wine. Her organically grown online community — a highly engaged audience of nearly 300,000 people across all channels — was born out of the desire to create space for other young Black women in the kitchen, who were absent from most of the content and imagery she saw in food media.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Asa kid, I knew for sure that I would grow up to be a doctor. My dad was in the military, so we moved constantly, and I changed schools nearly every year. I was looking forward to finally escaping off to college, so I worked hard to get into good schools. At seventeen, I left for an Ivy League university. That’s when everything changed. I experienced trauma early on, which sent me on a tailspin into a deep depression. I would go on to battle addiction for years later. Nobody knew at the time, but early symptoms of bipolar disorder were also manifesting. Unable to keep up with the rigorous pre-med curriculum, I dropped out after my freshman year. I returned home feeling like a shell of my former self. Out of the classroom for the first time ever but still hungry for knowledge, I gravitated to the kitchen, following recipes on television, and pouring through my mom’s old cookbooks. The kitchen felt like a safe space. It was where I learned to be alone with my thoughts and connect with my senses. Here, I didn’t need to be numb. In fact, I wanted to feel, and taste, and smell, and see in full color. Working with food was therapeutic, in a lot of ways, and I realized I had a knack for putting flavors together. I was so excited at one point, I recall researching culinary schools, convinced that I’d discovered my true calling. But the realities of life had other plans for me. I stumbled through various retail and restaurant jobs until eventually getting clean and settling into an accounting career in the construction industry. I had my son when I was 21, and by the time I was 25, I’d worked up to being a senior project accountant. I didn’t question my path, really — I “felt” I was “lucky” to have figured things out at this point. By then, cooking was relegated to something I had to squeeze into busy worknights as a single mother. It wasn’t until my company transferred me to South Florida that my passion for food was reignited. I fell in love with the bounty of farmer’s markets, full of ingredients I’d never seen before. Late nights experimenting in the kitchen became a reprieve from sixty-hour work weeks. At the same time, I saw a boom in online food content, so it was now possible to learn how to cook nearly anything I desired with a simple internet search. I started sharing snapshots of the dishes I was making and friends encouraged me to start a food blog. In 2012, The Kitchenista Diaries was born. I came across an article that described women in tiny New York City apartments who used their ovens and cabinets to store clothes as “kitchenistas.” I thought that was ridiculous, and it spoke to the insane amount of privilege one must have to not need to cook at home. “Kitchenista” is such a powerful word, why not reclaim it to celebrate women who actually use their kitchens to cook? So that’s what I did. I called myself The Kitchenista. I quickly grew a small online following and enjoyed finding community with other Black women obsessed with food as much as I was. While my new life online was blossoming, my accounting career was crumbling. My performance had tanked, along with any desire to tolerate what had become a habitually toxic workplace. Though I should have expected it, getting fired rocked my entire world. Pregnant with my second child, I made the difficult decision to move back home to live with my family in Virginia. Ironically, fifteen years after leaving college I found myself back in my parents’ kitchen, in a similarly fragile state. Once again, the kitchen became a cocoon. I spent much of my pregnancy cooking and creating content for The Kitchenista Diaries, while navigating my feelings surrounding failure, heartbreak, and fear. Outside in the world, I felt ill-equipped for adulthood and unsure of where I belonged. I was ashamed of my situation, of my struggles with bipolar disorder. But in the kitchen, wielding my chef’s knife and commanding the attention of sizzling cast iron skillets, I felt strong and capable. Most importantly, I found peace. It was where I felt free to discover myself in new ways, and where healing could begin. This time, I didn’t question it, and I didn’t allow my circumstances to hold me back. Changing careers in my early thirties was a challenging pivot — one that took nearly five years to complete. Today, I could not be happier with my work as a cook, recipe developer, and digital content creator. I have the freedom to create a work/life balance that makes sense for my family and for my mental health. When I step into the kitchen each morning, I know that I am walking in my purpose.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

My dad is Black, raised in southeastern Virginia, and my mom is second-generation Cape Verdean, from Massachusetts. I was always exposed to two different styles of food at home — American soul food and the Portuguese-influenced cuisine of Cabo Verde. Adding to that, I’ve lived all over the place, from Texas to Germany. In the early days of Food Network, I was hooked on Emeril Lagasse’s show. It was the first time seeing anybody cook linguiça on TV, a Portuguese sausage that I also grew up eating. Even though he highlighted food from his hometown of Providence, Emeril also seamlessly weaved in Cajun dishes from New Orleans. I was so fascinated by that. It was like getting permission that I didn’t have to choose between the two sides of my family. I think too many people try to put Black cooks in a box, as if to say we can only focus on one thing — usually soul food. But that’s not my lived experience, and my food reflects that. Today I feel like cooking smothered rabbit, tomorrow I might be making chile-braised oxtail tacos, and by the weekend I’m craving caldo verde. I’m all over the place. I’ve embraced it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve always been moved by a verse on “Ok, Alright” by Mystic, a hip-hop artist from Oakland. Her album, “Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom” was released in 2001, at a time when I was in a really dark place:

Cuts for luck and scars for freedom

They will never feel your pain

So you’ll defeat them

World in your eyes

Ready to fly

You must make it through the next day to feed them

I wasn’t a spiritual person at the time, but I believed at the very least that there had to be an equal and opposite force as powerful as the darkness and despair I was experiencing. I allowed myself to imagine the things I would do in my life despite pain. What’s on the other side of that darkness? If I’m strong enough to get through that, what else can I do? Who could I help? Struggle and oppression isn’t our destiny. No matter what kind of trauma we’ve experienced, that’s not what defines us. Twenty years later, I still go back to that thought process when the world feels like it’s closing in. Every day, I make a choice to do things that support my recovery. Instead of feeding the negative thoughts, I try to look into the light and keep going. I choose to create something beautiful, even if it’s just a meal that makes me (or somebody else) happy. At times when I’ve lost nearly everything, visualizing a more hopeful future was enough to hold on for another day.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

A few years into my food blog, some photos of my dishes showed up on the Instagram page of a Jamaican food truck. The business was owned by a certain D-list singer’s mother. There was my shrimp, and chicken wings, and a smoked salmon bagel, oddly captioned “jerk salmon burger.” I immediately shared all of the screenshots on social, tagging the owner of the food truck, and my followers followed suit. She ignored or blocked all of us, hundreds of comments. To this day, I still laugh — it is probably the most bizarre thing I’ve experienced on social media! The experience caught me off guard, but I learned a lot more about intellectual property rights after that. I don’t let brands get away with taking my photography to advertise products on their feed without permission and compensation. In quite a few instances, I sent invoices out and collected on those payments. Instagram and Twitter have better tools nowadays to report violations and have posts taken down for infringement. As a food content creator, you must understand your rights with respect to IP. The internet is not the free-for-all that people make it out to be.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Things were rocky in my personal life during the early days of my food blog, The Kitchenista Diaries. I was unemployed with another baby on the way. Even when my savings ran out and I still hadn’t found work, I put off applying for public assistance because I was so embarrassed to need help. Eventually I got approved for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and TANF (temporary cash assistance.) I’m still not sure what I would have done without those safety nets. Grocery shopping with a baby and no car was a struggle in and of itself. Where we lived, that was a $20 uber ride each way to the store. Daycare was unaffordable, even with assistance, so I stayed home with my daughter. I used every meal I cooked as an opportunity to create content or study a new recipe, or both. I learned how to monetize my blog and get paid to create recipes for other brands. People started asking me to prepare food for their parties and dinners, so I was able to earn catering income here and there. I saved up enough to buy a digital camera and used tutorials online to learn how to take better photos of my food. I wrote my first two digital cookbooks during this time and sold them online. The income was sporadic, nowhere near what I used to earn, but I saw potential in building an online business. When my daughter turned two, I transitioned back to full-time employment. The accounting job I took turned out to be worse than the position I’d been fired from a couple years prior. Despite everything I’d just been through, the stability of direct deposit didn’t make me feel whole again. In fact, I felt like I was lying to myself every day I sat at that computer. This time, I quit on my own accord and published my third digital cookbook a couple weeks after. I never looked back.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Most people crave the familiarity of comfort food. If you can serve them something that conjures up memories of grandparents, or a vacation they loved, or happy times in childhood, they will go crazy. My most popular recipes are all classic homestyle recipes. I might tweak the technique slightly or encourage folks to seek out the best ingredients they can get their hands on, but I don’t stray too far from the original. Just enough to make that dish the best possible version of itself. I’ve gotten comments like “I haven’t had turkey wings since my mom passed and your recipe came close to hers.” That’s powerful. I enjoy helping people foster those kinds of positive memories through food.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

A perfect meal takes me on an adventure and piques my curiosity. I want to toggle between sweet and savory. I want acid and umami, the slow burn of chile peppers, exotic spices, unusual textures. I’m always chasing the kind of bite that is so good it feels like the world pauses as you lean back in your seat and your eyes close in utter disbelief. But a perfect meal can also be an experience. I love dining with friends who will try anything on the menu. Sometimes I can’t even recall the exact things that we ate, but I’ll always remember the laughter, the conversation, glasses clinking, and plates being passed around the table. Perfect meals create memories.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I’m a fellow this year in FoodLab Detroit, which is a collective of restauranteurs and other food business owners who share a desire to build an equitable, nourishing, and sustainable food system in Detroit. It’s been a year of unprecedented change in the food industry, but instead of lamenting what we lost, why not imagine what could be built in its place? In a few short months, I’m already dreaming bigger as a result of these conversations. I’m synthesizing all that I’ve learned from sharing food, building community and teaching home cooks online to think about how to use my platform for greater good. I’m exploring opportunities to open a brick and mortar location in the city. I’m not sure what that looks like at this stage, but I’ve always envisioned a kitchen of my own to hold classes and events. I’d love to offer a creative hub, where other cooks in the digital space could shoot content and have access to commercial kitchen space. Maybe there’s a restaurant in my future, but it wouldn’t be a traditional business model, especially in light of the pandemic. Our industry needs to be shaken up, and it’s people like me who are crazy enough to do it.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

We get so busy cooking for others that we’re often eating junk food and takeout in our free time. But that’s the kind of food that leaves you feeling sluggish, with less energy to get through long days. I’ve really struggled with that — my own diet doesn’t always reflect the healthy food I’m more than capable of preparing for my clients. The Whole30 program has been instrumental in helping me reset my digestive system when things start to feel out of whack Eliminating added sugar and dairy from my diet helped to relieve a lot of the inflammation and “brain fog” I was experiencing, plus I sleep better too. The work is physically demanding and takes a toll on your body over time. I could barely walk the day after some of my longer catering gigs. My mom is a physical therapist and I tend to hear her voice in my head telling me to stand up straight, stretch, wear supportive shoes. I live in crocs now.

Other than that, I’d say it’s important to always engage with activities that excite you, even if that’s outside of the kitchen. Cooking is work now, so as much as I still love it, my brain needs a break sometimes. I’ve gotten into home decorating lately. It’s fun to have a hobby again — this one won’t become a career though! Finally, make your mental health a priority as much as you can. It’s okay to need therapy, in fact there’s probably more people who would benefit from it than not.

Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?

I didn’t have the advantage of culinary school, but I knew how to grind. There wasn’t any big secret to it. I just cooked every chance I got. Every time I went to the market, I picked up an ingredient I’d never used before. I read every night, whether it’s a blog post, or food magazine, or industry news. Every meal I cooked was an opportunity to learn. My last dollars went to investing in better pots and cooking equipment. You’ve gotta be hungry for it, you have to be willing to out-work everyone else, and you can’t expect success overnight. Use social media to your advantage. You can create your own buzz, tell your own story, and connect with other chefs all over the world. Be your own PR. Just remember that social media can also be a lot of smoke and mirrors. Most people are only posting their highlight reels and edited shots; you’d be surprised at the challenges “successful” people are still facing in their personal and professional lives. So, don’t compare your journey to that of strangers on the internet. Carve out a path that makes sense for your goals and circumstances. If you put in the time and work to perfect your craft, you will always come out on top. In the meantime, build real relationships with peers who you respect. Find your tribe. They can be sounding boards for honest feedback or trusted resources when you have questions about the culinary world that google can’t answer.

COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?

Due to the pandemic, I scaled back catering and cooking in-person. I shifted that time and energy to creating more digital content, recipe development, and virtual engagements. I’ve always had a digital brand, so this wasn’t a huge pivot, but the landscape of social media changes frequently. It’s important to pay attention to what people are asking for and what the algorithms dictate. I partnered with a video production company this year so that we can start growing my brand’s presence with high-quality video content. We’re releasing merchandise soon, that will be a new revenue stream for my business. There is an increased demand for home cooking knowledge these days. I’d expect that to continue to grow this fall and winter as we face another round of lockdowns and quarantines. I would advise other chefs to think about how to engage with their customers in the digital space, whether it is teaching virtual cooking classes, sharing pantry-friendly recipes, or self-publishing a cookbook. People gravitate towards authentic storytelling. We don’t have to pretend that things are normal right now — they’re not. Whatever it is you’re going through; you can share those personal moments via food on social media.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1) If you freelance, it’s imperative to price your work adequately. Until I asked more experienced chefs for help, I wasn’t charging clients enough to cover the time and labor that occurred outside of their kitchen, and I wasn’t considering things like the wear & tear on my equipment, or the cost of seeking health insurance independently.

2) Natural light is infinitely better for food photography. If you have the options, take photos of your food near a window or outside. People are visual, it’s the images of food that will draw them in. It doesn’t matter how good your recipes or restaurant menu is if nobody is compelled to click on the page and learn more about it.

3) There is a whole world of cooking fats beyond canola oil and butter. It’s a small change that can make a big impact. Whole30 opened me up to considering alternative fats to incorporate into my cooking. Leaf lard, duck fat, beef tallow, coconut oil, red palm oil, ghee, and the list goes on… try them all and see what works for your dishes.

4) Cheap cookware is a waste of money. You’ll end up replacing it so many times that you could have invested in a better-quality piece. I worked with what I had in the early days, but those were the first changes I made in my kitchen. Having the right tools makes all the difference in being able to cook safely and efficiently.

5) Creative droughts are a real thing and they are unavoidable. Just do whatever you can to push through it. Knock off the other items on your to-do list you’ve been putting off. Get some rest. If possible, change your environment for a few days. Some of the best advice I ever received was that if I find myself in a slump, go be of service to somebody else. It’s all about getting out of your own head for a little while so that you can find a new perspective.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

The duck-fat roasted chicken tutorial is still a favorite recipe of mine. It speaks to how I love to bring out the best in simple ingredients. You think you’ve had good chicken, but then you eat this one, with super crispy skin, a hint of lemon and herbs, and the savory flavor of duck fat — it’s everything a roasted chicken should be.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Culinary education should be part of every public-school curriculum, as early as elementary school. Back when it was still called “home economics,” that was my favorite class in seventh grade, slightly edging out chemistry. We cooked, gardened, and sold baked goods in the school store. I learned so much in that one year but never saw it offered again at any other school I attended. Not only is it vital that we teach kids the basics of home cooking and how to identify fruits and veggies, but also how food is grown, nutrition, food safety. Even things like how to set a table, basic etiquette — social skills may seem like a lost art, but they are so important in the hospitality business. This is a viable career path and should be taught alongside any other trade in more high schools, especially in cities like Detroit which need a talent pool to support a growing restaurant industry.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can find my published recipes on my blog or digital cookbooks, or follow me on Instagram: @thekitchenista.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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