In 2006 when I started my very first blog, I knew only one other African-American who was food blogging. I’m sure there were more but I hadn’t found them yet. Fast forward 5 years later and finally people of color are taking their love of food, fashion, and every other topic imagineable and blogging about it. I have enjoyed watching this evolution, discovering great talent, and seeing various businesses and careers taking off as a result. But there is one food blog that stands out among the many that now exist and that blog is the The Duo Dishes. So what’s the allure? Maybe its because they are duo, or because they live in Los Angeles, or maybe because they are UNC alums (Go Tarheels!). Well, for me its all of those things coupled with the fact that they bring you fool proof recipes, fun stories, and an inside look at the L.A. food scene. Chrystal Baker and Amir Thomas are college friends who found their way to Los Angeles working in Television Production and Marketing, and one day decided it might be fun to start chronicling their at home cooking and on the town eating adventures in a blog. The Duo Dishes blog recently celebrated it’s three year anniversary and in that time has become one of the most well loved food blogs on the web, so much that Chrystal now has a full-time freelance career in food as a writer and cook. Amir still works in the television industry but one thing that hasn’t changed for either of them is their desire to share their love of food with all of those near and dear while continuing to seek out the best of what the L.A. food scene has to offer.
I recently had the opportunity to share a little girl time with Chrystal and knew after our meeting that I had to have she and Amir on The Blacker The Berry Food.
TBTB: Tell me about your culinary journey, how did you find your way into this wonderful world of food?
Amir: As long as I could remember, I’ve always loved to eat. Even as a young kid, I was known to my friends and family as a passionate eater who never turned down a good meal. For my whole life, half-eaten plates were passed down to me, and any sort of left-overs were mine for the taking. As I got older, I grew interested in how food was actually made. I spent a lot time hanging out in the kitchen with my mom, grandmother, and aunts and marveled at all the ways one can manipulate and prepare food, cooking it in whatever ways you wanted. I moved to Los Angeles after college and was opened up to a whole host of new ingredients and types of cuisines. My appreciation and passion for eating, and cooking, intensified greatly.
We started the blog in November 2008. It really did happen on a whim. We had known each other back in college, but it wasn’t until we both moved to LA and began hanging out in intersecting circles that we realized food was a common factor. We would talk about different recipes, cook together and then cook for other people together. One day, Chrystal said it would be a good idea to start a food blog–a place to share our recipes and photos of food with our friends and family. It just grew from there. Today our readers span the globe–from California to Montreal and Ireland to South Africa. We have been fortunate to build a strong foundation and voice for ourselves amongst thousands of food blogs as a source for inventive recipes, useful and interesting information and our own distinct delivery.
Chrystal: Like Amir, I’ve also been a lover of food in the way that many of us start loving food. It usually begins with a desire to eat. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother who would cook for me often. I would stand around the kitchen watching her get ready for the usual midweek meal or a special holiday. I remember wanting to know what was going on and how to do it. As I got older, I found myself in the kitchen baking cakes and cookies from cookbooks and dishes I saw on television. Right after college, following my move to Los Angeles, I realized baking desserts was not going to be enough for sustenance, so I began cooking more dishes with the variety of produce and range of ingredients readily available here in California.
TBTB: What is your first great Food Memory?
Amir: Growing up in a huge family, food was always the center of every gathering (I am one of seven children and have dozens of aunts and uncles with countless cousins). During these gatherings, especially during the holidays, I would always gravitate towards the kitchen and pass the time with the women in my family preparing the big meal. Being a curious observer, they would share food tips, various techniques, and stories about the recipes during the cooking process. All my early memories of food are in my grandmother’s kitchen in awe at all the chopping, stirring, and mixing taking place to feed several empty bellies.
Chrystal: This is not my very first memory, but it’s one of the first that made me feel great about cooking. It must have been fifteen years ago, but I made my first batch of chocolate truffles and roasted vegetables for my parents’ dinner party with friends. The guests raved about those roasted vegetables like they were golden nuggets. For years after–and I do mean years–the guests at that party have requested those vegetables or mentioned how good they were so long ago. To me, they were a very simple dish, but that confirms the fact that delicious, simple food does leave a lasting impression.
TBTB: Who or What inspires you most in the kitchen?
Amir: We’re inspired by twisting traditional family dishes, and ethnic or regional fare with our creative mix. We love to cook without the inhibitions of recipes and over-measuring and encourage our readers to do the same. We want people to enjoy food as much as we do, and that is why we love to show the energy, life and excitement that we find in cooking. Los Angeles has been a major component in our love for food, what we eat and the things we share with other people are also molded from spending time in the Midwest, Northeast and definitely the Southeast. Each place contributed to how we cook today. Our food truly exemplifies Southern + California at its best as we mix and match the flavors of both regions to come up with new recipes. We are also passionate about exploring new cultures through foods we’ve never had before. That has led us to pop into various ethnic markets and restaurants to chat with storeowners, pick up recipes from cooks, purchase foreign ingredients and create a dish. There have been a few unsuccessful attempts, but that’s the beauty of discovery!
Chrystal: I am also personally inspired by new cultures and traveling. I’ve always had an interest and love in places within this country’s borders, but the world abroad truly grabs me. Whenever I return from a trip, there’s a new recipe idea or ingredient on my list to try. After a trip to Seattle, I wanted to make Russian piroshky, Rome made me obsessed with purple artichokes, San Francisco’s Hog Island oysters led to hand pies and the almond croissants of Paris convinced me to stock my cabinet with almond paste. I truly enjoy our Ethnic Exploration series on the blog because it’s a space to really jump into another culture and cook dishes that are foreign to us. That process of discovery and creation is inspiration in itself.
TBTB: Favorite Ingredient?
Amir: I am a lover of cinnamon. It adds such a great bump of flavor to any cake mix, sweet pastry, cookie recipe, or even a cup of coffee—and all it takes is a dash or two! Recently, we’ve been exploring cinnamon in savory dishes. Mixing it into spice rubs for pork or adding a sprinkle over poultry will elevate the flavor of the meal to an unthinkable level. Even more, the classic Middle Eastern spice combination of mint and cinnamon is the perfect addition to lamb, a variety of salads, or even tomato sauce.
Chrystal: Salt. Even as a child, I knew what bland food tasted like. My mother would hate to see me adding salt to a dish every now and then–either at home or in a restaurant–but I knew that salt made it taste better! Back then, I didn’t quite understand that proper seasoning and salt go hand in hand. Of course now, I know salt opens the palate and prepares your taste buds to enjoy flavorful recipes. Finishing off a beautiful plate with my favorite ingredient, flakey sea salt, is the way to go.
TBTB: Favorite Kitchen Tools?
Amir: I’m embarrassed to report that if you poke around my kitchen, you will find the latest single-purpose kitchen gadget that gets used a handful of times a year—like the mango slicer or olive pitter. The ultimate kitchen gadget, though, is my KitchenAid Stand Mixer (I affectionately call her Priscilla). She gets put to use several times a week. I now know no kitchen is complete with a Kitchen Aid!
Chrystal: I live for my microplane zester. I put citrus zest in any and everything. The microplane makes it too easy! I also love my wine key. A dash of wine in the dish, a dash of wine in my glass. That’s how any cook should operate.
TBTB: I’m a firm believer in the art of the Sunday Dinner, which is a common practice throughout many African-American homes. Every Sunday after church I sit down with my parents, husband, kids, and countless other relatives to what is arguably the best meal of the week. The conversation is good and the food is always great. What do you do for Sunday Dinner, and can you share a recipe that would be appropriate for my next Sunday Dinner?
Chrystal: When I was younger and lived closer to other family members in Florida, a Sunday dinner was usually baked chicken, cabbage or another green vegetable and cornbread. There would occasionally be sweet tea on the side, and perhaps for dessert, there would be an easy peach cobbler or pound cake. When we moved to New Jersey, our family circle was tiny, so the dinners were similar, minus my favorite parts–the tea, desserts and all of the people! Regardless, we would eat together at the table. I believe every meal should have dessert, and now that fall is in full effect, try this Apple Crumble Pie. It is paired with cinnamon whipped cream and salted caramel, so you know it’s going to be good.
Amir: I was fortunate to grow up in a home where dinner was served around the same time every evening, and we eat every meal together as a family. Nowadays, we love hosting dinner parties for friends on most weekends, or even throwing an extravagant Sunday brunch from time to time. We made a Tarragon Chicken and Grape Pot Pie for a pie contest, and it is officially my favorite savory pie. Nothing tops a flakey, buttery crust! I’ve made that recipe several times now for friends and family, and the whole process of making any pie, even sweet, from scratch becomes more and more fun each time. A made-from-scratch savory pot pie would make an awesome meal at your next Sunday Dinner. We have a couple recipes for pot pie on the blog: Chicken Cheddar Pot Pie and a Lamb Sweet Potato Pot Pie. A great sweet ending to one of your Sunday meals is a Banana Pudding Cake we made a while back. It’s a Southern-style dessert featuring homemade cake, pudding and whipped cream. Every part of this cake was made from scratch. It’s a messy delight!
Lastly, I’m also obsessed with breakfast food, most specifically pancakes. At one point in my life, I made some type of pancake everyday. When I was a kid I loved when we had breakfast for dinner. This is, of course, a new way to do Sunday dinner. Or, if you’re like us, you’ll do Sunday brunch. You could do something completely different and fun and serve up a platter of pancakes with all the right brunch sides. We made decedent Coconut Pancakes with a Cinnamon Pineapple Syrup and Caramelized Plantains. That is a must try.
TBTB: Best piece of advice you can offer to the next generation of Chefs/Writers/Restaurant Owners, etc. who are aspiring to enter the Food Business?
Amir: It sounds cliché and overly simplistic, but it’s so true: try new things! If you think you don’t like seafood, try a homemade crab bisque or freshly shucked oyster. Never tasted sushi? Venture out to a local spot with a passionate sushi lover. Trying new things and exploring new ingredients will only enhance your palate, stretch your versatility in the kitchen, and teach you something new about yourself. These are all great things!
Chrystal: My best piece of advice is to ride your lane and do it well. There are a lot of people in the food business. Even if it doesn’t seem like it upon first glance, there is room for everybody to succeed in this business. It’s so important to be yourself, speak with a true voice and prepare foods you enjoy in your own manner. People enjoy genuine character, so stick with it! You’ll always find people who enjoy your style, and of course, your food.
And with that I am officially hungry. Thank you Chrystal and Amir for sharing your stories and journey to Food blogging, I think I’ll head on over to the blog and check out those Coconut Pancakes. Happy Eating Everyone!