The Torchbearers

By Jane Marion

Photography by Scott Suchman

Illustrations by JORDAN AMY LEE

The Tastemakers

The Tastemakers: David & Tonya Thomas

The most influential movers and shakers on Charm City's Hospitality scene.

By Jane Marion

o say that David and Tonya Thomas are two of the busiest people in Baltimore’s culinary scene is hardly hyperbole. As co-owners of the Bel Air-based H3irloom Food Group, which highlights the foods of the African diaspora, David, 55 and Tonya, 58, cater weddings and parties in their massive event space, host educational dinner series, and manufacture a line of hot sauces inspired by their trip to Africa in 2020.

As owners of the now-closed Ida B’s Table, the city’s first modern soul food restaurant, they were also the first to uplift and pay homage to the African-American food roots of the Chesapeake Bay region and the broader diaspora—and that ethos infuses everything they do. H3irloom, emphasizes David, a former Chopped champion, is an umbrella term meant to encapsulate all of what he likes to call their “righteous work.” “We envision this business to once again reclaim the narrative,” he says of the contributions of Black cooks to American cuisine. “We are trying to make good food but also do good work.”

All the aforementioned ventures are just the beginning. Other projects in the pipeline include tending to their farm in Upperco (named Gabriel Fields to honor an enslaved Marylander once promised land in exchange for helping the British during the War of 1812), where they plan to grow produce for H3irloom, and hosting more cultural collaboration pop-ups, like the one they did last spring honoring West African and Mexican cultures at Clavel taquería in Remington. As if that’s not enough, the longtime restaurateurs are working on a soon-to-be-published cookbook about Maryland’s foodways and are planning a special dinner for the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

At a time when Black chefs and their critical contributions to American cooking are finally getting their due, the Thomases are laser-focused on amplifying the stories of enslaved people. That trickles down to the ingredients they source, like Carolina Gold rice, a gold-standard grain in the industry. “Carolina Gold rice wouldn’t exist in this country if it wasn’t for the skilled labor of Senegalese Africans who were picked up from the Ivory Coast and dropped in the Low Country because of their skills,” says David, whose paternal great-grandmother was an enslaved person. “That’s how you got Carolina Gold rice, one of the most prized rices to come out of this country to this day. Once you understand that, you know we are more than fried chicken and collard greens. It changes the whole narrative.”

The couple is also eager to spotlight the Baltimore region, where they were both born and raised. “We love Baltimore and the industry so much—we are trying to inspire the next generation,” says Tonya. “In a business where there’s so much negativity, we are trying to be a positive light.” Adds David, “At the end of the day—at the very end of the day—I want to improve the condition of our people and make sure Baltimore gets its due as a culturally food-rich city. I want to make sure that Baltimore becomes a culinary destination.”

The Torchbearers

David & Tonya

The Showmen

Alex & Eric Smith

The Sober Ambassador

Ashish Alfred

The Community Activists

Mera Kitchen

The Crab Queen

Nancy Devine

The Team Players

Steve Chu &
Ephrem Abebe

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