(left to right) Mackenzie Anderson, Carmen Beasley, Hannah Abed-Rabo, Adrian Smith, Jessica Stampley, Nick Conard, Angela Washington, Bennett Brown, and Keelin Payton. Elizabeth Lavin

Food & Drink

Jessica Stampley’s Short but Perilous Journey to Running Her Own Kitchen

Bonton Farms' new executive chef on racism, sexism, and taking a stand.

Jessica Stampley’s quiche is obscenely delicious. The all-butter crust shatters with a bite, and the custard is a thing of tender beauty, delicate yet able to hold a ridiculous amount of whatever ingredients the Bonton Farms executive chef has in excess. Maybe roasted tomatoes, arugula, house-made sausage, and Lost Ruby Farm goat cheese, or ham and a mélange of gypsy peppers and sweet onions plucked from the rows behind the sunny cafe.

I ate one for the first time at the start of the pandemic, when I began ordering my weekly groceries from the farm Daron Babcock started in South Dallas to bring food and jobs to the neighborhood. I had profiled Daron in 2018, just as he was breaking ground for the cafe, and I wanted to support the farmers market that he and his wife, Theda, had recently opened to serve the public after restaurant orders had slowed to a trickle.

I also wanted to follow up with Daron to find out how the farm was faring in light of the pandemic and the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, both of which, I suspected, were having a disproportionate impact on the racially segregated and economically disadvantaged neighborhood. And, of course, I wanted to find out more about the quiche and the newly hired chef who makes it.

But, as it turns out, when a White lesbian journalist talks to a White man and his Asian American wife about a quiche baked by a multiracial chef in a cafe they founded in a historically Black neighborhood, things get complicated.

The problem started with a blog post. It was basically a transcript of my wide-ranging conversation with Daron and Theda, so I didn’t think much about it when I put it up. But a few days later, I received an angry email from Jessica, who had a particular bone to pick with me. Why, she asked, did I think it was OK to print a quote about her racial identity without ever bothering to check with her?

I had to rack my brain for a minute. Theda had quoted Jessica as describing herself as “neither this nor that,” the product of a White mother and a Black father, in the context of her ability to work in a diverse community and oversee a diverse kitchen. I heard it as a compliment, and I believe it was meant as one, never imagining that it could be offensive and impugn Jessica’s credibility among her Black co-workers. I should have known better. I would never take at face value a characterization of someone’s sexual orientation made by another person, even in the context of a quote. Yet when it came to race, it never dawned on me.

Garden Party: A Hatch chile, potato, and smoked cheddar quiche with arugula and dill.
Elizabeth Lavin

Jessica wanted me to know that her racial identity is not a matter of being neither this nor that; it’s more about being a whole lot of this and that. She self-identifies as a proud Black woman with a White mother, a Black father, and Native American ancestry. She said she wasn’t looking for an apology. She just wanted me to understand the consequences of my post.

I asked her if she’d be willing to come over to my backyard so we could talk in person. She showed up with a bag of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and I popped the tops of some bottles of Topo Chico. We sat 6 feet apart, sweating under a tree in the heat, and had a good, long chat.

Jessica was born in Minneapolis and spent most of her toddler years in the back of her parents’ food truck. It was the ’90s, before food trucks were cool, but the line at Hirsch’s Concessions would wind down the block for her dad’s fried catfish, fried okra, and fried chicken. She says she ate so much of his fried shrimp that she developed a shellfish allergy. 

Her dad’s family came from Mississippi, so she learned the art of Southern cooking from her grandmother during holiday visits: pound cake, sweet potato pie, roast turkey and pan gravy. By high school she was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family. 

She had been planning to study art and photography at the University of Minnesota after she graduated high school, in 2011, but she made a last-minute switch to culinary school. Her first big job was at the landmark fine dining restaurant Piccolo in south Minneapolis, where she was made the executive pastry chef when she was barely old enough to drink. But when her mom remarried and moved to Dallas, in 2015, Jessica followed. The heater in her car had given out, and she couldn’t stomach the thought of another frigid winter.

She had an interview scheduled the day she arrived with Village Baking Company, and she had one the day after with Kate Weiser Chocolate. She was offered jobs at both places, but she had already worked at a bakery, so she chose the dark art of cacao. She became the sous chef within the year, and Weiser nominated her for Zagat’s Dallas 30 Under 30 list, which she made the first year they published it, in 2016. But she was living in the Mid-Cities, dating a guy in Fort Worth, and the drive became too much. She took a job for a while with The Black Rooster Bakery and then came to her senses, broke up with the boyfriend, and eventually came back to Dallas to work at Gemma as the head pastry chef. 

“You learn how to run a kitchen, and then you learn how to run your life,” she says.

Gemma reminded her of Piccolo, and she loved it. But for women—especially Black women—being in the kitchen has never been just about the food. Throughout her career, Jessica has been sexually harassed verbally and physically. She’s not alone. The unspoken assumption even now is that if you want to work in restaurants, that’s just part of the gig. So she usually didn’t bother to mention the demeaning comments or the groping or the assault in an elevator when a colleague shoved her against a wall because, he said, he could tell she was into him. 

“It happens all sorts of ways,” she says. “Not until I was in a position of leadership, whether it be as a pastry chef or as a kitchen manager at the bakery, did I have the audacity to speak up and say something about it. When it was just happening to me, I was trying so hard to do whatever I needed to do to advance.” 

Her focus became learning everything she could about every job she had while she had it. “I think my longest stay at a place has probably been two years,” Jessica says. “So I have one of those résumés. I would go to a place intentionally to learn what I didn’t know. The moment that I felt like it didn’t have anything else to offer me, I moved to the next thing.”

The next thing after Gemma was Melt Ice Creams in Fort Worth, and then an appearance on Chopped Sweets for an episode titled “Freeze, Please!” that aired in March. When the host asked her why she wanted to win, she said she wanted the prize money to seed a food truck and that she wanted to be the culinary role model of many colors that she never had growing up watching the Food Network. “I am from two literally opposite ends of the spectrum,” she says. “I have Native American blood in me that I’m very proud of. My mother is 100 percent German. My dad is a dark-skinned Black man. And his mom, who is Black, looks like what Pocahontas in my head looked like as a child. To find my own identity, it’s a matter of embracing all of it.”

“Not until I was in a position of leadership, whether it be as a pastry chef or as a kitchen manager at the bakery, did I have the audacity to speak up and say something about it.”

She lost in the final round with a macaroni and cheese doughnut ice cream (don’t blame her; the ingredient was mandated), but with the failure came an even bigger dream. Really, it was more of a vision.

“My eyes were closed,” she says, “but I was awake, fully awake, having a very vivid visual depiction of seeing myself standing in what was like a coffee shop or bar. But there was a kitchen in the back, and I walked through and I’m on a patio that’s giant, and then it opens up to the garden. That opens up to farmland, to a much bigger space. I’ve never had that much detail or clarity about what I wanted or what my place would be like.”

She started doing market research to see if such a place even existed, and she came across Bonton Farms, which has grown to encompass a coffee shop, a restaurant kitchen, and a cafe connected to a giant patio that opens up to a garden. The 40-acre farm extension is a little farther down the road, but Jessica’s not one to quibble. When Daron and Theda posted openings for a pastry chef and an executive chef, she applied for the pastry chef position. They hired her as the executive chef in February, before her 28th birthday.

Jessica invites me to hang out with her in the cafe kitchen on a Thursday morning. I hope she’s going to show me the secret to her quiche crust, but instead she’s working on a batch of roasted apple galettes to make use of some extra fruit. As we chat, she weighs and measures cardamom, cinnamon, and sorghum molasses, taking notes in her journal for a new recipe. 

The kitchen around us is hopping. Adrian Smith is working the grill, filling breakfast orders. Angela Washington is assembling lunch trays of waffle fries and fish fingers for the kids at The King’s Academy, the new pre-K to second grade school Daron helped establish in South Dallas with Prestonwood Christian Academy. Nick Conard is tending to the chicken brine, filling a plastic tub with oranges, lemons, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Keelin Payton is in the far back corner, washing dishes and keeping everyone on track. 

The kitchen is functional but cramped. Jessica says it was designed by someone without actual kitchen experience, because the refrigeration units are too small and too far from the prep stations, limiting the types of dishes the team can prepare. Theda recently received a grant to redo the space, and Jessica is hoping then they will be able to do so much more: ice cream by the pint, complex vegetable dishes that showcase the farm’s produce, more catered events and farm-to-fork dinners with live music on the patio. 

They also recently installed a “Preservatorium” in a building out back. In addition to overseeing the school lunches, Angela has been learning how to make jam with Donna Collins, the founder of The Jelly Queens on Lovers Lane. Angela gives me a taste of the strawberry jam bubbling on the stovetop. It is gorgeously tart and seasoned with a touch of cinnamon. “I still need to add the pectin and calcium water,” she says. “When it starts to gel, the spoon will leave a wake like a ship in the water. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Angela grew up in Bonton, although she now lives in Grand Prairie. She has been at the farm since the beginning, when she was first ordered by the court to do community service. Daron asked her to stay on to help with the opening of the cafe, and now she’s full of plans for pepper jellies and pesto. 

Vision Board: Stampley had a waking dream about what her future restaurant would be like. It would have a coffee shop or bar, a cafe, and a patio that led to a garden and farmland beyond. She found it all at Bonton Farms.
Elizabeth Lavin

Keelin, too, started on the farm. He used to come through the cafe to use the bathroom and noticed there was no dishwasher. Three months ago, he asked Jessica for the job, and he started the following Monday. He grew up in Oak Cliff, near Kiest Park. A trained mechanic, he lost his job and moved into the Austin Street Shelter. But he has enrolled in CitySquare’s food handler certification program, and he has plans to move back to Oak Cliff soon. “I like working in restaurants,” he says, laughing. “I like my hands being clean.”

Keelin says the kitchen crew under Jessica is like a family. “You fit in that circle, in that rotation. It’s not just being a dishwasher. You have to know what they need next. You’ve got to keep up with the rush. You can’t get in someone’s way.” He pauses, and then he says, “We’ve got a good rotation going on in here.”

Even so, Bonton has its issues, too. Daron and Theda may speak out of turn, or a kitchen colleague might hurt Jessica’s feelings, telling her she’s got nice hair for a White girl. Or there was that time that Jessica left the kitchen to take a cigarette break. As she was walking down the street, someone drove up behind her, rolled down the window, and hollered, “I would kidnap you if I didn’t know you had a husband.” 

The unmarried Jessica had seen the guy before, working on the farm. She found out later he had spent more time in prison than he had in the outside world. He later apologized, and she chalked up the creepy catcall to cultural differences.

But he’s part of the reason she chose Bonton. In addition to wanting to practice her vision—not farm-to-table so much as table-on-farm—she was drawn to Daron’s mission to help people coming out of incarceration, homelessness, and addiction. “That’s just from my experience with my family and stuff that I’ve seen,” she says. “I did homeless outreach as a kid in high school. We’d go out and feed people and get them into a shelter.” She was surprised to find a place that was taking it one step further, adding job training, employment, and housing to the mix. 

The question is how long she’ll stay at Bonton before she pursues her own vision. I told her that while she’s there, we should work on a cookbook together featuring her recipes and the farm’s produce. I need to learn how to make that quiche.

Write to [email protected]. This story originally ran in the November issue of D Magazine with the headline “Race and Quiche.” 


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