chef talk dave thomas

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Dave Thomas and his wife, Tonya, along with business partners Brandon Taylor and Yuriy Chernov, opened Herb & Soul in Parkville in 2012. The cozy, bustling restaurant specializes in what Thomas calls Southern fusion, comfort foods with a healthy twist. Think alligator etouffée, fry bread tacos with braised rabbit and anything kale. Herb & Soul Express, which opened in Hamilton in December, offers carryout and delivery of foods Thomas has become known for (both at the Parkville restaurant and his stand at the Sunday Farmers Market and Bazaar).

What are your food roots? My grandmother was a Blackfoot Indian, one generation out of slavery, from North Carolina. She had 13 acres in Howard County with apple trees, fig trees, pear trees, cherry trees. She had a garden; she butchered her own animals; she made root beer. I watched her make everything from scratch from her own fields. When I got into cooking, I wanted to do that.

Sounds like you were on top of a trend. People do look at it as a trend; that’s an unfortunate thing. If you look back to the 1950s, before industrial farming became dominant in the U.S., even if you went to the grocery store to buy food, they could point you to the farm where it came from.

Does your food have a message? I believe the Creator made everything to eat perfectly. As chefs, our job is to enhance what nature provides. I’ve done all the gastronomic stuff; I’ve worked with foams and know all the ways of making food look like something it’s not. I like simple food; simple flavors. I want people to eat healthy. But people want what they want. Some customers come in strictly for our fried chicken.

So you want people to eat close to the earth. Not only is that healthy, but you’re supporting the environment. I serve blue catfish because it’s invasive in Maryland waters. The indigenous white or channel catfish grow to only 10 to 15 pounds. Blue catfish is indigenous to Asia and was introduced in Maryland several years ago. The record caught was 120 pounds. It has no natural predators, so it’s eating all the things we love about the Chesapeake: baby oysters, baby rockfish, baby crabs. The only way to get rid of it is to cook it and eat it. 

Will the Express menu be different? We’ll have artisan pizza, along with our Southern fusion, po’boys, Navajo fry bread tacos. We sell them now at Baltimore Farmers Market.

Is Herb & Soul Express a prototype? We’re looking to do five to 10 locations. Our idea is to change the concept of carryout and delivery food. No buffalo wings or frozen chicken tenders. We won’t be selling steak-umms. I’ll be buying fresh top round from Roseda, and hand-slicing it. —Martha Thomas

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