I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Heather Watkins Jones, classically French-trained professional chef and creator of TheBlackerTheBerryFood.com. A visually beautiful site that consistently offers up recipes and cooking-related insights that are equally affecting and inspiring, it has long been among my favorite food blogs. If you have an appreciation for the skillful, uncomplicated use of seasonal ingredients and for tantalizing recipes both healthful and indulgent, it will be among yours too.
Flavorful World: What was the most daunting aspect of starting TheBlackerTheBerryFood.com? What has been the most personally enlightening aspect?
HWJ: Finding the time to keep up with it was and still is the biggest challenge. Buying the domain name, setting up the template is the easy part and I had the vision I always knew what I wanted to do with the site but not having the luxury of time to get the word out about it and making sure it gets the attention it deserves is frustrating. The most enlightening aspect of it has been the overall support of the website that I’ve received from some of the most unlikely places.
FW: The holidays are coming. What is the most non-traditional dish you’ve ever prepared for Thanksgiving or Christmas? What inspired you to deviate from the expected?
HWJ: Believe or not I leave the Holiday cooking to the matriarchs in the family, even though I am a food professional they are quite territorial about the holiday cooking. It used to offend me but now that I have small children I look at it as a gift. On the rare occasion that I’ve been asked to contribute something, I’ve done things like pumpkin crème brûlée or Butternut Squash Pie as opposed to Sweet Potato. Those dishes may not sound too non-traditional but for my family they were. The inspiration comes from just wanting to introduce new tastes and flavors to my extended family members, using ingredients that they may not be accustomed to. I’ll be honest here, I think my family (husband and daughters) are the only ones that eat Butternut Squash, my grandparents, aunt, and even my own Mother wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with it.
FW: W. Somerset Maugham is credited with the quote, “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.” If you were charged with preparing three breakfast dishes all to be served the same day, what three dishes would you prepare? In what order would you serve them, and why?
HWJ: I’m sure the idea of eating eggs in its many forms three times in one day might not appeal to some but for me it would be heaven. However, if I was preparing these dishes for someone else I would look at those three meals almost like courses. So I’d start out in the morning with a parfait of Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and homemade granola. Something light, like an appetizer. The mid-day meal would be a second course, something a little heavier but still leaving the diner room for the main event so I’d serve up traditional Eggs Benedict. Finally for the main event I’d go all out and do sweet potato home fries, some sort of great artisan sausage, brown bread with good European butter and some sautéed greens on the side, probably spinach.
FW: With regard to your recipes, tell us what seasonal ingredient’s availability you most look forward to each year and why.
HWJ: In late summer, everything seems to come together at once, which makes for unlimited options in the kitchen. In late August, early September this area is generally overrun with tomatoes, combined with the arrival of some Fall squash. There are still plenty of great local greens to be had, lighter varieties like arugula and spinach, but also hardier ones like collards and kale. The last of the stone fruits combined with concord grapes and apples. My kitchen isn’t big enough to hold all of the treasures that I bring home during that time period.
FW: If offered a chance to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a single day anywhere in the world other than your city of birth or current residence, with each meal being taken in a different geographic locale, what three places would you choose, what would you eat, and why?
HWJ: Breakfast in Paris eating just a simple croissant. Why? Because I’m a classically French-trained chef so that is in many ways where my culinary journey begins. For Lunch I’d head to Florence, Italy for pizza. I love the simplicity of Italian cooking, their appreciation of great ingredients and their love of family. My final meal of the day would be in Barcelona, Spain at a Tapas bar. There is something incredibly sexy to me about Tapas and Spain in general. Small plates of food showcasing some of the best of what the Mediterranean has to offer, great wines and people who are always in a celebratory mood.
FW: What do you think is the biggest impediment to more healthy eating habits in the U.S.? What will it take for us to overcome it?
HWJ: WOW, I imagine if I knew how to overcome it I’d be a pretty lucky lady…lol but seriously, what’s impeding us in my opinion is lack of access to good quality food and food education. We need to continue to support our local farmers, create more incentives for young people who want to study agriculture and farming, continuing to re-teach people the benefits of cooking with local fresh ingredients because we really have gotten away from that. Convenience doesn’t always equal better. And finally somehow, some way, we need to make it affordable. Just last week I had a cooking student ask me if I spent more money shopping locally and purchasing majority organic than I had in years previously when I didn’t, and I hated to tell her that yes I do spend a little bit more. Teach the next generation now, so when they are parents they will be the ones making the difference and really facilitating the change.
FW: What is the single most important message you want your site visitors to take away with them?
HWJ: There is more to African-American food professionals, food culture, and food history than fried chicken and collard greens.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits.
HWJ: “Eating My Way to the Top.”
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
HWJ: I’ve always been an avid reader but with two small children I don’t get to indulge in anything other than “Goodnight Moon” these days. I love going to the movies but my husband and I are kind of at that stage in family life where we don’t get too many date nights either. So with all that being said, I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I love television. On a Friday night when the kids are in bed hubby and I will pop a big bowl of popcorn and get caught up on all of the television shows we missed during the busy work week. I don’t do reality TV, but instead some of the new scripted shows like Parenthood, The Good Wife, Elementary, Scandal, Boardwalk Empire and Boss. I also try and fit in a yoga session when I can. It’s key to helping me maintain a healthy stress level.
*Note to Readers: If you’re a food lover and haven’t yet added The Blacker The Berry Food to your Favorites list, then now’s a good time to do that. Go on, I’ll wait. Back? Good. Now, assuming you’re still hungry for more insights, recipes, and food photography from this talented chef that will have you leaving teeth marks in your computer monitor (I refuse to believe I’m the only one who has done so) then you’ll also want to become a regular at Heather’s Food Diary.