Cooking for the Culture

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S1: The holiday season separates the culinary All-Stars from the amateurs, and one woman who will help you raise your cooking game is chef Vallery Lomas.

S2: When I was starting out my career, I was kind of warned by other women don’t bring baked goods into the office because it’s very important for you to be seen and respected, like outside of like, you know, these traditional gender roles of like being the black woman that’s bringing cookies for everyone every week.

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S1: Vallery Lomas on holiday cooking in her new book Life is What You Bake It. Coming up on a word with me Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. It’s the holiday season, a time for all the amateur cooks in your family and friends circles to show off. Maybe you or the person who clocks out of your nine to five at a bank or a hospital or a law firm to throw down in the kitchen? Vallery Lomas was that person years ago, practicing law in New York City until she parlayed her love of food and skill in social media into reality show stardom. As a chef, Lomas won the third season of The Great American Baking Show, and she has just released her debut cookbook. Life is What You Bake It and she joins us now.

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S2: Hi, Jason. Thanks so much for having me.

S1: I am really excited because I’m not like a great cook, so I want to start with this. I imagine it’s kind of hard to choose. What’s your favorite recipe from this book that just debuted?

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S2: I would say my favorite dessert from the book is one of those very special family heirloom kind of recipes. It’s called my granny Willie Mays Million Dollar Cake, and it’s it’s a three layer cake. It has this very like luscious pineapple filling, and it’s got a cream cheese frosting on the outside and it’s just like, so good. It’s it’s just something that like people see that cake and they eat it and they don’t stop eating it until it’s gone. And the next day they call you and tell you that they’re thinking about it. It’s one of those cakes.

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S1: Your family’s story is like a big part of your journey as a chef, and you dedicated this book to your grandmother’s. Just tell the audience a little bit about them. And why was it so important for you to honor them in this book?

S2: I was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I’m positive that it’s, you know, my southern Louisiana upbringing where I was surrounded by, you know, my cousins, Johto, who grew strawberries and wild blackberries growing in our yard or my grandmother’s fig tree or grapefruit tree. So it was very natural that all of those things would find their way into not just pies, but, you know, cake fillings and crumbles and crisp and all that kind of stuff. But you know, the reason it was very important for me to both tell my story and this book, but also tell the story of these matriarchs and my family being my mother, my grandmother’s, my, my great great aunt and her dinner rolls that have been passed down. It’s because, you know, when I think about my own journey, I understand that I’m standing on the shoulders of so many black women who have come before me, who were amazing chefs and bakers. And you know, they did that. But they also did so much other work during the day and still lived these beautiful lives full of love and grace. And yes, they had hardships and adversity, and they might not have been recognized. But this was my chance to name them to show their pictures and to tell their stories outside of them. You know, being women who made delicious cakes, they were also women who raised families. They were women who contributed to the war effort. There was so much more to them and I wanted I wanted to paint that picture because it’s a part of me.

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S1: You had a life before you became the famous chef you are now. You were a lawyer. And according to your story, like cooking was a big part of your final year of law school. How did being a lawyer and how did sort of cooking seep its way into your lawyer life and eventually sort of supersede it? All right. When is the point where you’re like, you know, I’m dropping the law and I’m going to do this cooking thing?

S2: Yeah. You know, so it was my last year of law school because I actually I graduated into the Great Recession. And it’s funny people go to law school, are generally risk averse, like you go to law school because you want that solid job when you get out. And I was one of those people. But when things got flipped upside down and I realized I didn’t have a job offer lined up waiting for me. So I started fall of my last year of law school. With that happening and then my my sister, who was we, were living in the same city at the time. We were living in Los Angeles because I was at USC and her fiancee unexpectedly passed away. So she and I, we moved in together. You know, just to kind of like, take care of one another. And I just thought back about all of those good times that we had during the holidays. Baking and I just wanted to recreate those moments, and it was also just a great outlet for me to express myself. So this was I started a blog and it was just as a way for me to like, bake with my sister, bake for my sister because she was in residency at the time, working crazy out. Hours, you know, she told me she’d come home and find like cupcakes, and it made her day a little bit brighter. So that’s how it started. And, you know, eventually I did get a job and I kept going back to this blog because I just had this, you know, kind of creative impulse that wanted to bake and want it to document that, to share it with other people. And it was when I joined Instagram, like probably six years after all of this started that I started to be a part of a larger community. And it’s when casting directors started dating me about appearing on some of these shows. And one of them stuck, which was the Great American Baking Show. And, you know, after I screwed up enough goodwill at work to take five weeks off, I went to England. We filmed the show. I won the show and I came back home and was like, OK, we have to like, make this bigger. This can’t just be like me, Baking and this Instagram world. I wanted it to leave outside of social media and be a part of something bigger.

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S1: I got to asses before we hit this break because this is so key to me. What did you bake to buy off your law firm so that they allowed you to disappear for five weeks? Because I know that couldn’t have just been an email that had to be like, You know you, Brett, you brought a special cupcake for the partner is like, What did you? I mean, did you bring stuff to the office? Had they had they tasted your goods? Because I could imagine if no one at the firm had ever tasted your stuff and were like, No, I’ve been invited to Baking show they’re gonna be like Farrell. Farrell?

S2: No. Yeah. So that’s really funny because when I was starting out my career, I was kind of warned by other women like, don’t bring baked goods into the office because it’s very important for you to be seen and respected, like outside of like, you know, these traditional gender roles of like being the black woman that’s bringing cookies for everyone every week. So I kind of really separated that part of my life. But by this time, because I was, you know, many years into my career, I did feel comfortable bringing stuff occasionally. And it was my boss’s birthday like two weeks before and I baked him a cake. I made him a lemon chiffon cake. And it’s so funny because after I made him the cake because I had just auditioned and I hadn’t told anyone. And he said, You know, the next day I said I had a dream last night that you went on the Great British Bake Off and I was like, Really? Did you? So I included that recipe in the book, and I called it a prediction lemon chiffon cake because it’s got clairvoyant properties and is obviously delicious.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back. More on cooking for the holidays and life with chef Vallery Lomas. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else, I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about cooking for the holidays with chef Vallery Lomas, author of Life is What You Bake It. We Have to Talk About The Great American Baking Show Judge Ayesha Curry announced the winner of your season. Here’s a clip. I am thrilled to announce

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S3: that the winner of the Great American Baking Show is.

S1: Vallery. This is supposed to be like a major moment of triumph for you, right? The thing that launched you, but the finale never aired because the show was shelved after one of the judges was accused of sexual harassment. Can you talk about the moment when, like, you knew that you had won? And then later on when you know that that moment is going to be taken away because of some man’s bad behavior? Like, what the heck was that like?

S2: Oh yeah. So, you know, because I kind of felt like the underdog most of the season. But when we went into the finale, I knew like, OK, everyone has a clean slate, and I was going to like, bake my heiney off, right? I was going to I was leaving it all in in the tent and the white tent that we were Baking in. And when we finish when they were like, Time’s Up, I knew that I had won because just something inside of me knew that if I did my best, it was going to be enough. And I knew I had done my best. You know, when I, Ayesha Curry, announced me as the winner, it was. It was such a special moment. My mom and my sister had like flown to London at a moment’s notice, like literally got on flights the next day to be there. And it’s hard to even describe how special that moment was. But it was really weird because this is TV land where I then fly home the next day and have to pretend like nothing happened. You know, I had kind of held in this huge secret for almost three months. And and also being a lawyer, I was always like waiting for the other shoe to drop because, you know, you’re trained to like, look for what’s going to go wrong. There’s like you’re preparing for the catastrophe. And you know, once we finished airing, I was like, Oh my gosh, like, it was a relief. And then when the premiere aired, it was like, you know, I didn’t think anything like, stop it. The train was early on, but when ABC decided to cancel the show, I definitely like went through some denial. I was like, Oh, well, surely we can work out a solution, right? And I quickly learned that the decision had been made. And, you know, it was up to me to just kind of like, figure out what to do with this.

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S1: Wow. So, you know, you wrote about that moment in your book and you said you wondered if, like race played a role in how the show handled it, can you go into a bit more detail about that? Because you know it, it is. It’s fascinating to me. There have been black people who have won cooking shows before, but you know, why did you think and how do you think race played a role?

S2: I think that it’s impossible to kind of remove race from any equation, right? It’s interwoven into the fabric of our society and you layer that on top of, you know, also being a black woman. And yes, people have won these shows, but it is very rare. And the show that I was on, you know, as part of this whole franchise of the Great British Bake Off, this huge franchise and a black person hadn’t won that show before. That was a huge thing. And you know, the the general like microaggressions and microaggressions that we, as black people face on a daily basis. You know, that stuff doesn’t disappear when you enter a TV set for our Baking competition. So, you know, just having to just deal with the general stuff we deal with anyway. And it being compounds that with the pressure and, you know, with you being one of the only people dealing with that pressure because the other contestants don’t look like you, that’s different. And also just like being a lawyer and understanding how we value lives for, say, insurance claims, because there’s a theory in tort law, if you’re going to hit something, hit something cheap. And I couldn’t help but understand that as a black woman, I was seen as as a cheap victim.

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S1: You know, you channeled some of your feelings about this experience into a recipe, and here’s a clip that you made about it.

S2: I think making lemon curd is a great metaphor for making the most out of a tough situation. You start with lemons to tart to eat on their own. Add something sweet and rich sugar and eggs, and you work while you’re whisking. It may seem like nothing is happening, but you’ve got to have faith and just keep going. Eventually, you will reach a point when the eggy liquid transforms into something rich and luxurious, and that’s life. We use what we have and make the most out of it.

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S1: You know, from a practical perspective, to make something out of lemons that you got from the Great American Baking Show. Quite frankly, I can imagine that being not just devastating, but infuriating in a way that a lot of people probably never experience. How did that propel you?

S2: It was infuriating, and it’s funny because I hadn’t really ever experienced like that anger or emotion before, and now I’m pretty familiar with what that feels like. Just we are used to adversity, right? We are used to like being put up against crazy odds and you have to figure a way around it. And that’s what I leaned into. You know, it was a much like longer journey and a lot more of a slog. But, you know, I made it.

S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back more on cooking with love for the holidays with chef Vallery Lomas, this is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about cooking with love for the holidays, with Great American Baking Show winner Vallery Lomas. She’s the author of the new cookbook Life Is What You Bake It. So here’s something that I do understand about. I understand Thanksgiving. We just did Thanksgiving. We all enjoy Thanksgiving. You know, I’m trying to make a good holiday dish for the rest of the year, for Christmas, for New Year’s. You know what recipes from your book would you recommend?

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S2: Oh, definitely sweet potato pie. It’s like, Oh my gosh, my sweet potato pie recipe. It’s a little different, but it’s really good. And also, I’ve got a bourbon pecan pie recipe. And you know, I think we have to lean into cookie season because we’re going to holiday cookie parties or hosting parties. And, you know, I’ve got a German chocolate sandwich cookie recipe. I actually I created it for the Great American Baking Show when I was competing. I’ve got red velvet thumbprint cookies, which are also really good, and I’ve got a cotton candy cheesecake that actually won me the whole show. And that recipe is in the bug and it is like, it is so good. It’s like if I’ve made a lot of different recipes for an event that is the one that disappears first.

S1: One of the big challenges when it comes to, you know, chefs like yourself is like a lot of times publishers and television shows, you know, they don’t know how to sell or market this well-spoken, effervescent black woman who makes Christmas cookies, right? So, you know, my question for you is, how do you distinguish yourself in this season in this important holiday season where people like my family would be scouring the internet looking for someone like you? How do you make sure that you stand out?

S2: Yeah. So I think, you know, universally, we all just want food that tastes good, right? And and I think that is something that I have always leaned in to is like, how does this taste? What is the flavor? And I think that’s something that can get lost in this, you know, social media world where it’s all about how something looks like. Yes, that’s important because we do taste with our eyes first. But if something looks beautiful and you don’t have the taste and the flavor to back that up, you’ve got problems. And you know, I think as black people in this country, we have always been like the tastemakers we’ve been, the people that are kind of like setting that standard. And I think you’re also like tapping into this bigger question about like the contribution of black people in this country to American food ways. And you know, when you talk about like, well, you know, how how do we market Vallery and you know, our Christmas cookies? Is that still like black food? And I’m like, Well, yes, because it’s a black person who’s making them and it’s black people who are eating them like, there’s no way to detach myself and anything I create from blackness.

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S1: I want to make sure that we close this because I think this is this is so important, especially in the holiday season. We’ve got our cooking, we’ve got our history, we’ve got our family. But also like the holiday season heading to the end of the year, it’s a time for reevaluation. What would you say to someone who is where you were back in 2009, where their profession doesn’t fit their passion and they want to make a new start?

S2: Yeah. You know, we we have one life to live and we have to absolutely make the most of it. And I think that if if you have a passion and there’s something that you want to be doing, don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to just start doing it, you know, dip your toe in those waters if this is how you’re spending your time after work or before work or on the weekends. That’s a pretty good indicator that it’s it’s something that you would want to do. And also, if you have a wonderful hobby that you’re passionate about, that can be OK, that can be enough, right? We don’t all have to turn our passions into our careers. But if it is something that you do want to start small and see if this is really how you want to devote your time and you know that the entrepreneurial journey and the freelancer journey, all of that, it is just that. It’s a journey like I miss having H.R. and I miss like having good, good health benefits, you know? But for me, it’s absolutely worth it because, you know, this is this is the only way I can see my life now is waking up every morning and know that I am walking in my purpose and I get to share my passion with other people.

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S1: Vallery Lomas is a chef and the author of Life Is What You Bake It. You can follow her on Instagram at @foodieinnewyork. F O O D Iy I in spelling out New York.

S2: Thank you, Jason.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Asha Saluja is the managing producer of podcast Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.