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Angela Davis The Kitchenista Interview Feb. 2018

Chef Angela Davis on Switching Gears, Starting Small, and Finding Her Footing Through Food

Following Angela Davis on Twitter is such a joy. No, I'm not talking about iconic political activist Angela Davis (who, to my knowledge, does not have a social media account) but an equally courageous, self-assured black woman who happens to share the same name. This Angela is a self-taught cook, private chef, food blogger, and author who tweets from @TheKitchenista. She is a 35-year-old mom of two โ€” her son, Jaden, is 14, and her daughter, Raven, is 3 โ€” who has a specialty in comfort food and frequently communicates with her followers about everything from recipes and kitchen techniques to motherhood and the news of the day. She does so with a sense of humor and laid-back, cool-girl attitude; she's your best girlfriend who helps you stock a perfect pantry while you talk about Insecure, intersectional feminism, and the best way to cook ribs.

Angela Davis's story is one that many young women can likely relate to. Many young women work a 9-to-5 job that doesn't quite satisfy them and try to develop a way to fulfill their passions on the side. Some even end up quitting or getting let go from those dissatisfying jobs and are faced head-on with the decision to either find another one or finally figure out a way to turn their hobbies and obsessions into a real business. Davis knows this internal struggle quite well.

Before pursuing a culinary career, Davis was a full-time accountant in the construction industry, and her blog, The Kitchenista Diaries, was something she was doing in her spare time. The transition happened "out of necessity." "I was pregnant with my daughter and had to move back home and lost my job โ€” kind of all at the same time," she told me over the phone from her home in Virginia. "I had a little bit of a network built up at that point; I had some opportunities to cook for a few people in person, and around that time I started selling recipes and e-books online." Davis did whatever she could to make a little bit of extra money and was also doing a lot of self-reflection. "I began realizing that I was actually happier standing in the kitchen all day than I was sitting at a desk," she told me.

Being out of work was difficult on its own, but Davis recognized that being pregnant was going to make it harder to find another desk job, even if she wanted one. "It was like I had nothing to lose," she said. "All of these [cooking] opportunities were within reach, and I went for it. Once you have one win, it encourages you to keep going." The baby steps made her feel even more confident, and she began seeing the potential for success. The best part was that it was happening publicly and other people were able to see her brand. "It just kind of grew organically," Davis said.

What started as a side hustle is now a full-fledged business: Davis has two online cookbooks โ€” a holiday recipe collection and an appetizer handbook โ€” for sale on her site, and when she's not testing recipes and photographing her dishes, she's catering events under the Kitchenista brand.

"When I first started doing this, it was more of a personal goal to learn how to cook better, and I didn't even know at that time that along this journey it would become a career," she said. "As I got into it, teaching other people how to cook and encouraging them to kind of adopt that lifestyle at home became more of my platform." Food is personal, and once you realize that you are actually having an impact on somebody's day-to-day life โ€” teaching them how to cook for themselves and their loved ones โ€” it can be intoxicating. What Davis loves most about connecting with her followers through social media is the immediate feedback. "I like Twitter the most because of the interaction. It's fast-paced; as soon as you post something, you can have a conversation about it. I tend to kind of gravitate toward those conversations vs. some of the other channels," she told me.

Davis gets the most social media interactions on weekends โ€” "When everybody's sharing Sunday dinner" โ€” and says she hears "the most heartfelt stories around the holidays." "I've had followers share with me that they hadn't cooked since a parent or grandparent died, and my [recipes] helped inspire them to get in the kitchen again and revive those traditions. There are women who have shared that they've used my recipes to work through depression or anxiety โ€” something I can relate to personally," she said.

And apparently Davis's buttermilk biscuits have led to a full stomach in more ways than one. "Quite a few women [on Twitter] have joked that they got pregnant after making the buttermilk biscuits. It's a long-running urban legend at this point," she told me. "When I was the one who became pregnant [with my daughter], the Twitter timeline lovingly nicknamed her Biscuit before she was born. The name stuck! It's been cool sharing those connections over the years."

Seeing her mentions blow up with photos of her dishes on strangers' tables lets Davis know just how big of an impact she's making. "It's just amazing that so many people are cooking more at home, and they tell me that they weren't doing that before," she said. "It feels really good; it starts to feel like you're part of one big family and not just out here blogging to empty space."

Angela Davis's aformentioned pregnancy biscuits.

As someone whose recipe knowledge ranges from "stuff my mom taught growing up" to "stuff I see on Pinterest," I'm always fascinated by how chefs find their niche in the kitchen. In her own cooking, Davis gravitates toward Southern soul food but is "always looking for ways to amplify." She will often incorporate ingredients or seasonings from other ethnic cuisines (Haitian, Portuguese, and Indian fusions are popular on her site) and interpret the idea with a twist, like making tacos with Nigerian beef suya or wrapping curry-flavored chicken salad in collard greens.

"I start with one thing that I'm really familiar with, and then it's just [about] making a few small tweaks: maybe I switch up the spice blend or maybe instead of potatoes I'm going to use yuca or manioc," Davis said, adding that she tends to "make things traditionally the first time" and from there her recipes begin to shift in another direction. "My mind just starts getting creative [and thinking], 'How can I make this mine?'" she said. Sometimes she changes the ingredients; other times it's just the technique. "A lot of times you have something [your] family has always made, but they weren't necessarily the kind of cook that was really precise about technique," she noted. "It's usually about refining that process and getting results that still feel familiar but unique [to you]."

For instance, Davis recently began testing recipes with a sous vide calculator, a tool that allows you to cook food in vacuum-sealed bags placed in a temperature-controlled water bath. The technique promises juicy, perfectly cooked meat (and eggs) with no guessing games of how "done" it is. "I like to know what I'm talking about before I present any recipes because people start to rely on me and ask a lot of questions. And I don't want to feel like I have to look things up," she said with a laugh. "[Sous vide] is a fairly new technique for me, but I've gotten comfortable with things like steaks. I do a lot of pork tenderloin, and I've also done ribs."

As a black chef, does Davis feel a responsibility to make sure her work gives voice to and celebrates black traditions? "I feel strongly that the black experience isn't monolithic," she told me. "My mother's family is Cape Verdean, so I didn't grow up only eating traditional Southern soul food. When I started cooking, I felt self-conscious about that because feedback sometimes led me to believe that as a black American I was expected to be cooking a certain type of food. Stewed chicken and manioc, Portuguese kale soup, and jagacida [a Cape Verdean rice-and-beans dish] have an equal place in my heart to a plate of fried chicken, mac and cheese, and collard greens."

Image Source: A few of Davis's delicious dishes.

Davis cites Mexican, German, West Indian, and Nigerian cuisines as those that have made a big mark on her. "The ingredients I choose, the techniques I use to prepare food, and the way I season my dishes are a reflection of my background," she said. "It's a unique perspective, and I'm OK with showcasing that. My approach to cooking is to allow all of these diverse influences to shape my ideas and point of view. I'm having fun, and my food is always going to be from the point of view of a black woman because that's who I am."

Davis makes a point of celebrating a variety of black cuisines across the diaspora and highlighting the many ways that our food traditions are connected. "[There are] so many ways that our food traditions are connected," she said, telling me that food has given her the motivation to not only re-create the dishes that her grandparents and great-grandparents used to cook in Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina, but to also find out what regions of Africa her family's history traces back to. "Eventually, I think I'll arrive at a place that feels authentic, that speaks to something even more personal," she said. "I've barely scratched the surface, and I'm really excited to continue sharing that process of self-discovery as a black cook."

"Cooking is so personal. There are so many different ways of going about it, and ultimately it has to feel right to you."

Davis says she relishes in learning new things โ€” and as a self-taught chef, it's especially important to stay creatively open. "Cooking is so personal," she said. "There are so many different ways of going about it, and ultimately it has to feel right to you. I'm more of a hands-on cook." Davis told me she loves working with her Dutch oven because "it's really involved in the beginning, and then you put it away for three or four hours." Getting all the aromas and checking up on it every once in a while makes her feel more involved in the process. She "never got into" using a slow cooker โ€” it just wasn't part of how she learned to cook while growing up. "I shied away from a lot of those recipes," she said, adding that sous vide has helped show her a modern way of doing things that she never thought she'd be interested in. "Learning to cook with the pressure cooker is the same way," she said. "I've been using Instant Pot and experimenting with sous vide . . . [but] it's so hands-off that it was really intimidating to not have those cues to know when things are done."

I was curious to know what Davis considers the best and worst parts about being an entrepreneur โ€” and a creative one, at that. Most in her field would admit that it's not an easy road to take, but the pros have a way of outweighing the cons, and Davis acknowledges as much. "Living in my truth and being able to express myself every day is the best part," she told me. "Having that freedom to change course when something isn't working . . . I can wake up every day and decide what I want to create and how to shape this bigger picture that I'm working on." When it comes to a disadvantage, her answer comes equally as quickly: the lack of stability. "I'm still trying to figure out how to build income consistently. There's no comparison to my freelance income that I had as an accountant. I'm not there yet. So, yes, it's a little scary. But you just have to accept that those things will start to come together and keep doing the work."

In recent years, it seems like only a handful of prominent black female chefs have been highlighted in modern media.

You've likely heard of Tiffany Derry and Carla Hall, who rose to national fame after competing on Top Chef; Tanya Holland and Ayesha Curry, both Bay Area-based restaurant owners and cookbook authors; and Sunny Anderson, a longtime fixture on the Food Network. Perhaps most well-known is Barbara "B." Smith, a former model who, though not professionally trained, has over 30 years of experience in the lifestyle industry. I'm willing to bet that most people wouldn't be able to add to this list without heading to Google, so I was interested to know if Davis, as a black chef, is disappointed by the lack of representation in the media and in the culinary space as a whole. Spoiler alert: she is. And when I asked Davis what challenges she's faced as a black woman trying to start her own business, she told me that visibility can be particularly tricky.

"It can sometimes feel like my work isn't taken as seriously or given the same amount of credit as my nonblack peers'," she said. "It's hard when you see others being celebrated for lazy or unoriginal content; it starts to feel like, 'I've done 'X, Y, and Z,' but I'm still not being recognized, included, or paid as much. What gives?'" Davis is quick to point out that these feelings aren't unique to food media. "I experienced the same [things] in my former career and in school before that, as so many other black women have. It's difficult to prove outright, and it feels uncomfortable to address because nobody wants to come off like a victim," she told me.

"I have taught myself to cook, taught myself food photography, [and] I can pretty much research whatever I want to know about growing a business," Davis continued. "But none of that replaces networking, being welcomed into professional circles, getting offered lucrative contracts, or access to funding. If you're a person like me, trying to break into spaces that lack diversity โ€” and let's be honest here: the food industry is still remarkably white โ€” you're constantly stepping out on the faith that you will come across people willing to acknowledge your talent and genuinely wanting to open doors for new voices."

Davis asserts that black cooks and food writers have a unique perspective to offer in this industry, and she wants to see more of them getting the same chances to tell those stories โ€” and, more importantly, getting paid fairly to do so. "All I can do is keep working and pushing for bigger opportunities and believe that it will eventually pay off, despite the deck being stacked against people who look like me," she said. Despite her frustration, Davis believes that it's possible to create a new wave of culinary personalities, to build platforms that are "big enough to share so we don't have to be so concerned with what the mainstream decides to pick up."

"It's opened my eyes to the importance of supporting and amplifying other black creatives โ€” specifically black women โ€” because who else will take care of us but us? If there's a way for me to bring somebody else to my team when I have an event and put a spotlight on what they're doing, that's where I sit. We all need each other," she told me.

Her open and honest approach to bringing others up the ladder with her is refreshing and inspiring, and it served as a natural lead-in to my next question. What guidance would Davis, a woman who has been able to turn her passion into her livelihood and (as we say at POPSUGAR) "find her happy," give to someone who is considering switching gears in their career, thinking about going to culinary school, or starting a food blog?

"Don't quit your day job!" Davis said, laughing. She went on to deliver one of the realest pieces of advice I've probably ever heard. "I mean, [I know] I did it. I know some people look at my story and want to go down that path . . . it sounds really inspiring to [begin a new] career and become a cook! But it wasn't that simple, and I'm still kind of struggling to kind of climb out of that [financial] hole."

She stresses the importance of maintaining your creative side in your free time as much as you can: take jobs on the weekends, stay consistent with blogging, take photos of your work, and generally fine-tune your craft. "I think that's a more realistic way to blossom and, more importantly, to figure out if it is really something that you want to do," Davis told me. "There are some realities about working as a chef that I wasn't prepared for. It's one thing to cook and blog from home, and it's quite another to be on your feet for 12 hours a day when you're cooking for another person or for an event. It's not for everybody. So I would say, just take your time: explore all of your options, save money if you can, and don't be afraid to start small."

Before we wrapped up, I couldn't help going back to our prior conversation about Dutch ovens, sous vides, and slow cookers. I told Davis that I grew up learning slow-cooker recipes but have only recently become obsessed with using one; I feel like it teaches me patience. "Slow cooking is a good exercise in that for anybody . . . just learning to leave it alone, let it do its thing, and knowing it's going to come out all right in the end," she said. I chuckled, recognizing the obvious metaphor for life in her cooking advice โ€” and knowing that she did, too.

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