Meet the talented home cook behind a very lovely food blog.
Today, Unpeeled profiles Carmen Johnson of The Black Contessa food blog. Carmen is a home cook, food blogger, and full-time public health professional whose deep love of food is worth sharing.
Ms. Carmen Johnson of The Black Contessa food blog falls into the rare category of people who immediately makes you feel like an old friend. Her warmth, enthusiasm, and love of food and family radiate off the pages of her lovely blog, which has perhaps the best life motto I’ve ever heard: “Don’t be eye candy. Be soul food.” Yes!
I first met Carmen on (where else these days?) Instagram. Somehow we started following one another and liking and commenting on one another’s posts. This eventually evolved into messaging one another about TV show recommendations, Philly cheesesteaks, and favorite restaurants.
I knew I had to interview her as one of Unpeeled’s inspiring women in food. Carmen is a renaissance woman: She holds a Master’s degree in public health and works as a public health professional by day. In her spare time, she’s an accomplished and self-taught home cook and food blogger. She’s lived all over the country, and her cooking style reflects her curiosity, spirit, and breadth of place.
I hope you enjoy getting to know Carmen as much as I did. And remember: Don’t be eye candy. Be soul food.
Follow Unpeeled and The Black Contessa on Instagram!
Ed. Note: This interview took place over summer 2021. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.
The Interview: Carmen Johnson of The Black Contessa
Lisa Ruland: By way of background, where did you grow up? How did you journey through Philadelphia and now to Texas?
Carmen Johnson: I am originally from the San Francisco Bay area, in the North Bay. I went to undergrad in Sacramento, and then I moved to Philly for grad school at Drexel University. I stayed in Philadelphia for a long time after that, almost 8 years. I moved to Dallas in 2019.
I would love to talk about the origin story of The Black Contessa, and how you learned to love cooking.
My aunt was a caterer, so there were always tons of people in the house and everyone was always cooking something or eating or sharing food together.
I grew up in Vallejo in the North Bay [near San Francisco]. Growing up so close to Napa and in the Bay area is, of course, where Alice Waters [of Chez Panisse] was from. So I had this mixture of good food my family grew up with, but also exposure to California wine country and the emphasis on local and very seasonal food, and so many diverse cultures and ethnicities.
Food was always a space that reminded me of home. The Black Contessa came out of that yearning for that sense of home.
Going to grad school and then working in Philadelphia opened up a whole new world of food. Philly has a great food scene. [Michael Solomonov’s] Zahav Restaurant and the Stephen Starr restaurants . . . I just learned about all these different foods I hadn’t had before, and it reawakened that yearning for both home and new experiences.
And that enjoyment of food and restaurants also became a love of cooking, too! How and when did The Black Contessa start?
I started Black Contessa as a creative outlet. The name is inspired by my love of anything Ina Garten. She’s so comforting and so elegant, and cooks food that is impressive but not overly complicated. She’s warm, and her recipes work every time. And Ina is also a home cook who is not classically trained and worked in a totally different field before getting into cooking. So all of those things for me at the time all came together.
I like food, I like cooking, and I’m interested in food not just for the eating’s sake, but for a culinary education. The Black Contessa is a creative outlet of me documenting how to be a better cook.
And it was important to me to add the “Black” part in the name. Ina is the queen of her domain. And I feel that way when I’m cooking, too, but from a totally different perspective.
And have you become a better cook through this process?
I have! And in Philly, I started taking culinary classes here and there. The Philadelphia Free Library has a culinary center, and they have big chefs come in and host classes.
For a broke grad student, a $10 culinary class with a real chef was awesome! So I would pay $15, $10, or go to a cookbook event. I’d get to see these culinary heroes of mine give talks, and it was amazing to ask them questions and hear about their journeys.
I took a butchering class while I was in Philadelphia and I learned a lot of cooking techniques. It was very different from cooking with your family. And I love home cooking, but there are also benefits to understanding the technique or culinary education gives you the why you do things a certain way.
I just am blown away that with all of this accomplished cooking and food blogging, food is not your day job!
Right. I work for a Texas hospital as a project coordinator. My two big projects are around colon cancer, as well as food insecurity and adolescents.
One thing I think often about is how my relationship with food changed during Covid lockdown. Did you experience any shifts?
Being a food person, I was like, “I can cook more!” That was one thought I had when we went into lockdown.
But it was hard going to the grocery store and seeing the panic: people with carts filled to the brim with toilet paper and food.
Coming from a public health background, you’re always preparing mentally for the great pandemic. I remember thinking, “The pandemic we’ve been preparing for is here.”
Could you see the writing on the wall?
Yes. I knew that this was going to be a long haul. I don’t think people got how longterm and deadly this was going to be. I remember being in the hospital and hearing medical professionals say that this is definitely not the flu. So I sensed early on that this was serious.
Switching gears to something lighter, I wanted to ask you a few lightening round questions I always ask people. The first questions: What do you typically have for breakfast?
Two fried eggs toast buttered with salted butter.
Fill in the blank. Other than turkey, it’s just not Thanksgiving without what dish on the table?
Dressing. And not stuffing. Cornbread dressing. I don’t even eat it any other time of the year.
What is a dish that feels like love to you?
I would say from my family, gumbo because it’s similar to the dressing. We don’t have it a lot. Just at holidays. And it’s so comforting. Everyone loves a stew, and gumbo takes time. It takes love and elbow grease.
Finally, where do you see the Black Contessa going and growing?
I have thought about this. Of course I would love to grow my following, but I’d really love to turn it into a community. Because it has become that for me. Whether meeting other home cooks or people who love food and because I have a public health background, I would love to talk to people who share that love.
I’d love to do a cookbook or be able to build on my recipes in that way. A podcast would be my first larger thing I’d like to do because there’s so many topics to be discussed!
Food is old and new simultaneously. It’s ever growing and ever changing. Food is how we come together.
So beautifully and perfectly said. Thank you, Carmen, for the wonderful conversation. I love counting myself as part of the Black Contessa community!