Food & Drink

Through Their Cooking, David and Tonya Thomas Reclaim the Narrative of Their Ancestors

The couple's H3irloom Food Group “is not just about making money," says David, "it has to be righteous work at the same time.”
—Photography by Tyrone Syranno Wilkens

While sitting in a small Senegalese restaurant during a trip to Senegal and Gambia in 2022, David and Tonya Thomas shared an “aha” moment.

“We sat on this dock at this roadside restaurant, and they had prepared this meal of chicken yassa and jollof rice for us,” recalls David. “That chicken yassa changed my life.”

When the couple tasted the deeply flavorful dish—seared chicken in a caramelized onion and lemon-mustard sauce—it triggered a flood of childhood memories. “Isn’t this your grandmother and mother’s smothered chicken?” Tonya said to David. “We always thought it was just a homemade dish,” says David. “It’s simple and complex at the same time—but when we tasted the chicken yassa, that taste was there, that flavor was there.”

For the Thomases, co-owners of Bel Air-Edison-based The H3irloom Food Group and longtime Baltimore restaurateurs—they owned Ida B’s Table and Herb & Soul Gastro Café & Lounge—the trip was not only a flavor journey through Africa but a homecoming.

For both David and Tonya, whose ancestors were enslaved, their travels to Africa were the culmination of a lifelong pursuit to learn more about their roots through the foodways of their mother country. As they toured the continent with fellow chefs and culinary historians, the trip was both professional and personal.

Shortly after their return from Africa, the duo, who left Ida B’s in February of 2020, launched The H3irloom Food Group, which is dedicated to sharing the story of their forebears through food, whether it is catering weddings and parties in their 17,000-square-foot event space, hosting educational dinner series, manufacturing hot sauces out of the massive commercial kitchen, or schooling fledgling Baltimore brown and Black chefs on techniques, such as how to sous vide or properly braise.

“We’re not just a caterer,” explains David. “We envision this business to once again reclaim the narrative.”

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, for David, 54, that narrative started in the Jonestown kitchen of his paternal grandmother: Greensboro, North Carolina-born Anna Poole Thomas, who was the daughter of an enslaved person. Her Howard County home sat on five acres of land rife with apple and pear trees and vines heavy with grapes, watermelon, and tomatoes. As a boy, David suffered from allergy issues so severe he couldn’t play outside, so he sat beside Anna as she cooked in her kitchen.

“I was allergic to 109 different things,” says David, as he enumerates: “Cotton, synthetics, plastics, all nuts except peanuts, penicillin, all seafood except canned tuna—I’ve outgrown a great deal of it, but I still can’t eat seafood.”

Despite his dietary constraints—in fact, because of them—he became an astute observer as he watched Anna cook. “She made everything from biscuits to homemade root beer,” he says. “She ground her own salt and spices. I watched her butcher chickens….I’m always chasing my grandmother’s recipes because I never sat with her to get her to write them down. I have a mental memory of flavors, and eating that chicken yassa took me back 40 years to sitting in her kitchen.”

At an early age, Tonya, now 57, also grew up watching various family members work their magic in the kitchen, especially her maternal grandmother, Clarice Davis, who cooked for Baltimore City schools, and her maternal great-grandmother, Levie Ratchford. “My great-grandmother cooked and baked everything,” Tonya recalls of her expansive family, including her grandmother, who had eight children, and an aunt who had 12. “When we had family gatherings for the holidays, there was always a spread on the table. We’d have not only the turkey, but the ham. And you had not only green beans but greens and mac and cheese and corn.”

Tonya can trace her family’s roots back to the 1800s in Calvert County. Her ancestors were oystermen. She got her start baking for her grandmother. “When she was cooking, she’d say, ‘Can you make me a cake?’” she recalls. “I started experimenting and making things. From there, as I delved into my family history, I found out that my paternal grandmother, who died before I was born, was known for making bread pudding. I was tickled because I am now known for my bread pudding.”


“We’re not just a caterer,” explains David. “We envision this business to once again reclaim the narrative.”


Though they shared an interest in cooking, both David and Tonya pursued other creative paths. She chased her dream of working in fashion design. David, who was trained as a classical pianist and played bass, became an independent music producer. By 1990, Tonya was working as a visual merchandizer for national apparel chain Fashion Bug in Arbutus, where David, who lived nearby, applied for a job. “I was a studio musician at night, and I’d get off at 6 or 7 in the morning,” he says. “Sometimes during the day, I’d be doing nothing, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get a job and make some money.’ I walked down the hill and I see this woman [Tonya] in the window, and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ And then I see a ‘help wanted’ sign and I was like, ‘I’m going to go in there and get a job and hopefully get a woman, too.’” True to his word, he got both. Fashion Bug hired him and two years later, on July 18, 1982, he and Tonya were married.

Even at Fashion Bug, Tonya was known for her culinary skills. When there was a grand opening or the debut of a store remodeling, Tonya would bake a cake or make deviled eggs. Her first professional job came when David was working for a production company that brought rapper Chuck Robb to town. Robb’s team was looking for someone to stock the green room before his concert, and David helped Tonya get the gig. Before long, the couple turned to the idea of making food their livelihood. In 1994, they opened their own catering company, Skilletz, in which everything was cooked in a cast-iron skillet. The mission was for people “to know where their food came from,” Tonya says. “It was healthy, organic, all-natural, farm-to-table before that was a thing.”

Using organic, sustainable ingredients was a natural progression, says David. “It was us reverting back to our childhood memories,” he explains. “My grandmother used to go out and pick her greens, and it was the same thing for her family. We were using the cast-iron skillet as our foundation, though we didn’t even realize it was the way our grandmothers cooked—it was just the universe talking to us.”

From there, the duo briefly worked at Metropolitan Kitchen & Lounge in Annapolis. David was the chef; Tonya made the pastries. Though they were only there for a short time, the experience was formative. “They wanted a chef who could deliver farm-to-table cooking,” says David. “I crafted the menu, hired the staff, Tonya would help train the staff and expo in the kitchen. It was important to the rest of my restaurant career.”

By 2012, the couple opened their first eatery, Herb & Soul. It was carry-out only, with a window in the back of a low-budget bodega-style store in Parkville, though the fare was so elevated—tender short ribs, lamb chops, bacon-wrapped pork loin, house-made rolls—people would often call for reservations. “We’d always tell people, walk past the toilet paper to get to us,” says Tonya, laughing at the memory. “They would see the menu, and think it was a dine-in restaurant.”

When the eatery first opened, they called their fare “Southern Fusion.” “We were evolving,” says David. “Calling it Southern Fusion was not understanding that all soul food— Southern food, all American food—is fusion, a great part of the world’s cuisines are fusion.” But to David, fusion meant, “We wanted to cook Southern soul food, whatever we knew that to be at the time, with influence from around the world.”

As dining devotees flocked, the business evolved and expanded. “We just put a little folding plastic table out there,” says Tonya. “Then these two women came in and ordered food with a bottle of wine and we were like, We can’t have them eating out of the containers or on paper plates,’ so we went out and got china for people just to be able to sit and dine in the middle of the store.”

When the convenience store closed, Tonya and David took over the whole space—and their first dine-in restaurant was born.

From its earliest days, then-WYPR host Marc Steiner was a fan. One day, he brought along famed culinary historian Michael Twitty for lunch and introduced him to the couple. At the time, Twitty was researching and writing The Cooking Gene, his memoir about Southern cuisine and food culture. (The book would later win the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year in 2018.) Tonya recognized the famed author—but David didn’t. So, when Twitty said to them, “I like what you’re doing but you guys have a larger story you could be telling,” David brushed it off. “Okay, thank you for coming in, I appreciate you,” he said, in a somewhat dismissive tone. After they left, Tonya turned to her husband and said, “Do you know who was at the table?” “I was like, ‘Ohhhhhh,’” chuckles David. “From there, we just fell down the rabbit hole.”

Meeting Twitty—someone they now count as a close friend and one of their traveling companions to Africa—was pivotal for the couple. “From that point on,” says Tonya, “we weren’t just giving you food. There had to be a reason this food was on the table.” As they learned about the history of the foodways of the African diaspora, it deepened their cooking and sharpened and shaped their mission to amplify their story—and the stories of those on whose shoulders they now stood.

Tonya and David Thomas in a rare moment of rest at H3irloom. —Photography by Tyrone Syranno Wilkens

In 2017, they opened Ida B’s Table, named for Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, a prominent Black journalist and civil rights leader. The fare was all-natural and organic, and the couple sourced from local farms. There were modern soul food interpretations, like local catfish in stewed tomatoes; cheddar farro (an ancient African grain); Old Bay fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits; and spiced Liberian greens on the menu. And the spot also served as a community hub where activists and authors like Twitty would give readings and local Black artists like Baker Artist Award-winner Ernest Shaw would exhibit their work.

“That space was about trying to reclaim the narrative of our food and our people,” says Tonya. “Ida B. Wells was known for telling the truth,” says David. “It was going to be a place where we told the truth—and I wasn’t afraid to tell anyone about that truth.”

Among the falsehoods he wanted to correct is the common misconception that soul food is unhealthy. It’s a narrative he says that stems from the higher rate of obesity in the Black community. “But that all came from industrial agriculture. Once [our ancestors] migrated from the Deep South and [stopped] being on that land, we were at the whims of industrial agriculture. We left the land because we were oppressed there, but it took us from a system of growing our own food to being dependent on the foods that were brought to us. Once Tonya and I understood that, we said now that we know better, we have to do better by educating our people—that’s what Ida B’s was all about.”

As they continued to tell their story and learn more about their heritage, the duo dreamed of going to Africa to further their culinary education. In 2018, David took first place on The Food Network’s Chopped, winning $10,000. From that first appearance, he announced his intentions to take his family to Africa with any award money he won. In 2020, as a Chopped Grand Champion, he took home another $50,000. That was the money that paid for their culinary trip to Senegal and Gambia. They made it a family affair, bringing their son Brendan. On their first night there, they landed on what would have been the 36th birthday of their older son, National Guardsman Evan Curbeam, who died at the age of 29 in 2013, after a drowning accident.

“We landed in Dakur and they had made arrangements for us to go up to this beach and have a candle-lighting ceremony,” says David. “The sky was filled with all these stars,” remembers Tonya. “I felt like he was there with us. It was memorable in so many ways. We went to an ‘auntie’s’ house and I touched a tree in her yard. I was like, ‘Why do I feel so comfortable here?’ And that’s when Michael [Twitty] said, ‘This is probably where your roots are.’ Throughout the whole experience, people kept saying, ‘Welcome home. We’ve been waiting for you to come.’”

As they visited small rural villages, where performers danced and banged on drums and mingled alongside village chiefs, they ate the food of their ancestors. “We went there to connect, walking through century-old markets with open stalls that had flies all over the place,” says David. “Then we went into the villages and were given rice and thieboudienne,” the national dish of Senegal, with fish and rice in tomato sauce. “We ate all together and with our hands as a community,” adds Tonya.


The duo dreamed of going to Africa to further their culinary education. 


They came back to Baltimore more energized than ever—and ready to rewrite the stories that had been told about their people. “The narrative is that they pulled these savages out of the jungle and brought them here because they needed to be taught some decency,” says David. He pauses, growing emotional. “No, no, tell the truth. Y’all grabbed us from there because we’re artisans and engineers and rice cultivators, that is what we found out from our trip, because we saw it. We talked to [village] chiefs who said we didn’t sell our ancestors into slavery, they forced us. When you start understanding that we are more than fried chicken and collard greens.”

They now had a greater understanding of their culture and renewed sense of purpose. Within months of coming back, and at the height of the pandemic, they decided to embark on a new business opportunity when their friends, entrepreneurs Linda and Floyd Taliaferro, wanted to recruit them as partners in their recently launched wedding and event catering business. Their new venture, says David, “is not just about making money—it has to be righteous work at the same time.”

To that end, H3irloom just acquired 68 acres for the business in Upperco, where, like their ancestors, David and Tonya will cultivate the land and grow organic vegetables to use in their catering. “Our partners acquired the land because of what we’ve been talking about for years,” says David. “This has all been part of the grand scheme.”

And last June, along with Twitty, James Beard Award-winning chef Mashama Bailey, and Wisconsin-based chef Adrian Lipscombe, they also acquired 30 acres in South Carolina as part of the Muloma Project as an attempt to take back the land, an old African settlement, that the locals had been forced off.

“There will be three working kitchens,” he says. “One is an ancestral kitchen more like you’d find in Africa in our travels there. You’ll have a heritage kitchen, which will be more like the antebellum kitchen you’d find in the Deep South. And then we go to the modern kitchen, a legacy kitchen which would be a kitchen you’d find in any modern restaurant. We will be able to tell the entire evolution of cooking with a farm to support each kitchen.”

While their plans are grand and their vision stretches way beyond the borders of Baltimore, they’re tirelessly pushing their narrative here, too.

Back in Baltimore on an early summer Saturday, Tonya, along with sous pastry chef Imani Brown, stands covered in flour in the pastry kitchen at H3irloom, making more than 300 of her trademark biscuits to sell at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market.

“You don’t want to overwork the dough,” says Tonya as she rolls and cuts her sticky bun biscuits filled with sweet potatoes and glazed with tamarind. “You want them to stay nice and airy.”

Buttermilk biscuits are a classic Southern staple, but Tonya puts her personal spin on them, filling them with ingredients like strawberries, plantains, and pineapple. “Why can’t biscuits be eaten as a dessert?” she asks.

In the meantime, David works in the catering kitchen, whipping up eggs for 30 sheets of frittatas he sells to wholesale customers including Black-owned businesses like Cuples Tea and Black Acres Roastery.

“We want to take everyone on the food scene in Baltimore with us,” says David. “It’s not about one or two restaurants exceeding expectations. It’s about how many restaurants can we get in this landscape to step up their game just a little bit? We want to leave Maryland’s culinary scene better than when we found it.”