May 29, 2019

STRANGER: Toyin Alli
LOCATION: Puddin’, Union Market, 1309 5th Street NE, Washington, DC
THEME: Chatting with a comfort food chef

Toyin Alli knows what it’s like to feel out-of-depth launching a food business, and so the chef-owner of Puddin’ plans to help others by opening an affordable kitchen where up-and-coming chefs can get the space and advice they crave.

“I wish somebody would have helped my ass, had said, ‘Hey this is what you need to do,’” she tells me with a smile. “A lot of people have helped me, don’t get me wrong, but I hope I’m making a place that people are like, thank god there’s a place that I can come to and have a space and somebody can help me out with licensing and all those little things.”

Recalling her own trials and tribulations setting up her Cajun and Creole comfort food business, she says “a little bit of guidance can go a long way.”

She’s renovating a warehouse she purchased in Capitol Heights, Maryland, to build out a commercial kitchen. The goal is to provide a more-affordable cooking space for up-and-coming chef-owners like herself with a much lower price-tag than the high-demand, high-rent places that are currently available around the District.

“I want to give back by providing a kitchen space that people can manage and get on their feet. These commercial kitchens should be a steppingstone to the next level, but it’s really hard to get to that next level if your rent for 50 square feet is $3,000 a month,” she says. “So, it’s going to be more-realistic pricing and incorporate hopefully some kind of coaching or guidance, so people can ask questions about the things that I know.”

Her altruism doesn’t stop there, as she’s also active with the DC government’s Project Empowerment, through which she hires kitchen staff who might otherwise struggle to find work due to barriers like criminal records or drug abuse. “As a small business owner it helps because [the program] subsidizes the wages, but it’s also a feel-good thing because you are helping people who are having a hard time getting positions,” she tells me when I pay her a visit at Union Market, where she operates a Puddin’ stand.

“We’re all susceptible to having issues in life, and it’s nice to have someone say, ‘I’ll help you out, as long as you come and do your work every week, I will pay you.”

Running her own business, working with Project Empowerment, and developing her own commercial kitchen space doesn’t leave Toyin with much free time.

Her day typically starts around 7am when she heads to TasteLab, a shared incubator kitchen space in Northeast DC, to cook the food. Some goes to the Puddin’ spot in Union Market, a small stand where she serves up classic dishes like etouffee and gumbo. But the space doesn’t have any kitchen capacity so she can’t cook fresh dishes on site. The rest of the food gets loaded onto her food truck, which does include a kitchen and therefore can also offer po’ boys in addition to the rest of her irresistible offerings.

Puddin’s truck pulls up at its chosen location between 8.30am and 9am, and because it’s open market season (April through November) Toyin usually stations the vehicle at two farmers’ markets; one on Vermont Avenue NW and another by USDA.

DC offers a paid lottery system for the competitive food truck industry so that vendors can win prized spots, but Toyin tried that for six months and decided it wasn’t for her. “What I’ve done is kind of cultivate; I go location to location, wherever there’s a lot of people around at lunchtime. And I’ll let people know I’m there and see if business builds, and it not I move on and find another spot. It’s worked out really well,” she says.

Puddin’ has two trucks, Biggie and Shorty. The latter is currently offline, but the former is making the rounds — and is something Toyin built from scratch. She found a $2,000 “shitty” former ice cream truck on craigslist and would spend weekends tinkering with it whenever she could afford to replace parts like new brakes until it was roadworthy. With a laugh she adds, “I did that because of money, not because I love DIY.”

When she’s not in the truck, Toyin is at Union Market, a huge venue featuring more than 40 food vendors. This isn’t a typical Dining With Strangers interview because we’re chatting at a table outside the building while I learn her life story, and then taking samples of her food home after; I tell her I’ll intersperse my feedback throughout the article.

Her food has won rave reviews and coverage from a host of newspapers and television outlets including Washington City Paper and CBS News. And with her planned kitchen space in Maryland her life is about to get much busier. It’s perhaps not what she imagined her daily routine would be like during her past days working for Amtrak’s inspector general, but from her frequent smiles it’s clear she’s delighted to be doing it.

Toyin was born and raised in Orange County, California, and eventually the family moved to Michigan. She was there from roughly 1995 to 1999, when she graduated high school, and called it a “complete culture shock” to go from a racially diverse upbringing in the Golden State to living on a racially segregated street in Detroit. “There was literally a street that separated black people and white people,” she says. “I went to school in the suburbs but lived in Detroit, and some friends couldn’t come to where I lived.”

So she spent a lot of her Michigan childhood indoors experimenting in the kitchen with the encouragement of her mother. “Anything in the kitchen I wanted to do she would let me, so I would make all types of tragedies for her and she would just consume them.”

Laughing at the memory, she tells me, “I would make weird baking soda and butter cookies. But the worst thing I remember making that my family just ate was this cake that I tried to make healthy because I was from California; I decided to put peaches and lots of broccoli in it, but my family still ate it, they were always incredibly encouraging.”

Having such fun in the kitchen gave Toyin a desire to pursue cooking professionally but she opted against it when it was time for college. Instead she went to Michigan State University for a degree in public policy. After graduation she spent some time in DC working for the House education committee before going to New York University to get her master’s in public administration, a time she describes as being “a lot of fun.”

Throughout this time she never lost interest in cooking. “I always, always, always wanted to go to culinary school,” she admits. “But I felt guilty about my student loans, I couldn’t take out any more loans” after the two degrees she’d already completed.

Instead she moved to DC to work for Amtrak’s inspector general. She indulged the love of cooking on weekends, experimenting with various recipes. In 2010 she decided to open a pop-up vendor stand at the food and arts venue Eastern Market, originally selling baked goods. It was through a mistake that she came to develop one of Puddin’s signature offerings.

“I enjoy taking these old school dishes like in the Betty Crocker cookbooks that gather dust on the shelf in your parents’ library, and bread pudding is one of those dishes. People either love it or hate it,” she says. “I came across my mom’s old bread pudding recipe which was this delicious Caribbean style with raisins and nuts — all the things that people now generally ask me to keep out of it. So I just started playing with that recipe, removing things, adding things, and giving samples out around Eastern Market.”

As Toyin refined the recipe she got increasingly favorable reviews, but it was serving at one year’s Taste of DC food festivals when she hit on the perfect version. “I was trying to do a million things and did something with the bread pudding sauce that was a huge mistake; nothing that compromised but definitely not part of my execution. I served it anyway and people were going crazy for it, so I knew I had to make that mistake every time.”

Is the mistake a secret? “It is,” she says quickly with a conspiratorial chuckle.

Whatever the mystery is, I approve. When I try the brown butter bourbon bread pudding (its formal name) at home I pulverize the irresistibly rich dessert in one sitting.

When Toyin first started out near Eastern Market she focused on puddings, and that’s partly how she got the name Puddin’ for her business. And then a fellow vendor at the market, artist Quest Skinner, started calling her Puddin’ and she says, “It just kind of stuck. And it made sense to use it because it’s a Southern nickname as well.”

She soon expanded to other dishes, including gumbo, and the positive reaction to her food meant the business was taking off. It made life too difficult to juggle both Amtrak and Puddin’ and so she ultimately quit the former to focus on the latter.

Puddin’ has been a presence at Union Market since December 2014, where visitors can try out the limited but tasty menu of Cajun and Creole comfort food.

“I think that’s probably the most fundamental American food other than Native American food,” she says. “It really is taking what slaves here had at their disposal to create food.”

Toyin adds, “My dad is Nigerian, so to me this is the closest thing to African food that Americans can offer. Gumbo means okra, it literally translates into okra, and so when I’m making gumbo it reminds me of okra soup in West Africa. And my mom is African American so to me the marriage of the two makes a lot of sense. A lot of the dishes we create have French, Spanish, Portuguese influence. I love the idea of making food that really represents the United States and where we’re from — and everybody loves it.”

For Puddin’s gumbo Toyin doesn’t take the approach of New Orleans-style gumbo and use a roux of fat and flour. She says a roux is typically French and instead she taps into trying to create gumbo as the Africans would have, starting with a lot of okra. She uses whole okra, so those people who don’t like the vegetable can have it fished out.

“We want to be welcoming and have everyone try it, and I understand not everyone like okra because it is a slimy vegetable — but I love it,” she says.

The recipe also calls for a lot of smoked ground fish, and trying it at home later I can vouch for the unique smoky tang that gives the soup a memorable edge. I didn’t expect ground fish in a sausage and chicken gumbo but the combination works well.

Toyin also serves me a generous portion of creamy parmesan cheese grits with a tomato butter sauce and topped with fresh shrimp. Diners aren’t limited to cold shrimp and at the food truck can pick fried catfish, fried oysters or fried shrimp as a topping.

I’m also a fan of Puddin’s etouffee, which is a Louisiana seafood stew served over rice with shrimp or crawfish. “It’s basically a buttery seafoody kind of bisque sauce, it’s really nice. I think you’ll like it,” she tells me. She’s right, it doesn’t last long at home.

The other dish I’m sampling is slow cooked red beans and vegetables with smoked turkey and beef sausage served with rice. Another thumbs-up from me.

I ask whether she’s planning additional menu items, and the already energetic person sitting across from me lights up with even more energy than usual. “I don’t want to do too many things and screw up all of them, to me it’s more important that we do everything very, very well,” she says. “But I have been wanting to do another menu item. One of the most popular in New Orleans is BBQ shrimp, which is not actually BBQ [it’s a Worcestershire-based sauce], so I’ve been thinking about putting that on the menu.”

How Toyin finds time to experiment with new dishes given all the responsibilities she’s already juggling baffles me, and she confides it’s at the expense of free time.

“I have great friends who are very understanding that my time is limited, or I’m tired a lot. And I have people who are good at making me do stuff like going fishing or camping or planning a trip and putting it on the calendar. And you realize that all of that stuff is way more important than this stuff,” she says, gesturing around the market.

“At the end of the day Puddin’ is a business and makes money and thank god I have the opportunity to do this and provide employment to people. But I want to make sure I have relationships with people and that’s what matters.”

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