Toyin Alli

In the Chef’s Kitchen

Always with an easy smile, Toyin Alli shares the Wild Blue Catfish Po’ Boy with the author before the lunchtime rush begins. Here, she’s parked at 400 12th St SW, about a block from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

You’ll probably see the long line before you see the proprietor and chef, Toyin Alli, through the window of her food truck.  While she’s parked in different places each day, people search her out for the Southern food offerings like gumbo, shrimp and grits, po’ boys or her legendary brown butter bourbon bread pudding.

While there are a number of restaurants in the DC area serving Southern fare, there aren’t too many food trucks in the District that specialize in Southern comfort food. The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, has licensed 305 food trucks since October 2013 (licenses are for two years) and they estimate that the number of food trucks currently operating is somewhere between 175 and 200, as some go out of business or are sold.

Alli didn’t start in the food business with a truck, though.

“I began selling as one of the food vendors at Eastern Market back in 2005, and I gave away lots of samples of bread pudding.”

It was slow going almost a decade ago.  Alli decided to take a break and pursue a graduate degree at New York University’s Wagner School. In 2010 she returned to DC and went for a job as a financial auditor at Amtrak while simultaneously applying to be a vendor at Eastern Market. She received a ‘yes’ to both.

“I loved my job in the Inspector General office (at Amtrak), and I also needed to make sure I covered my student loans – so I was working both jobs,” she says. “Finally, I made the decision to take this opportunity and follow my passion.”  

Around the same time that she left her position at Amtrak in 2010, the farmers’ market scene was really picking up, from Eastern Market to the FreshFarm markets, to Georgetown. Alli purchased a used truck in 2011, but didn’t want to incur any further debt, so she bought the necessary equipment to assemble the interior components, piece by piece.  Finally, in early 2014 she had the truck on the road.

“I was so happy to be out in it, even in the winter weather!”

Like a number of top chefs, Alli cooks to order and pays attention to sustainability in the products she sources.  Whether purchasing fresh produce from farmers and producers or using wild blue catfish for her fried fish po’ boys and fried fish and grits, she is aware of the benefits to the environment, as well as giving a superior product.

“The wild blue catfish is a great option for the fish – it’s not a bottom feeder, so the flavor is light, the texture is firm and it’s easy to cook with.”

The wild blue catfish has been an invasive species in the 1980s that spread into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Through programs from agencies and organizations like the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Sustainable Fisheries, and the Wide Net Project, the fish has gained popularity among area chefs and institutions like George Washington University, where it’s used in the cafeteria.

Alli has had a great response to the fish, and says that she typically uses between 250 and 300 pounds of it a week.

While she didn’t pursue a formal culinary education, Alli says her mother has always encouraged her – and she works hard to develop her recipes, testing and re-testing until they become part of her regular menu.

“When I was a teen, I moved from California to Michigan with my family.  It was around the time the Food Network came out. I didn’t know many people, so I would watch cooking shows and try things out on my mom – she was so supportive and really nurtured my interest in food. I learned so much from her – our family always gathers and cooks together, too.”

In terms of having a permanent location, Alli says, “I know the brick and mortar will happen at some point – the demand is there, I just want to make sure everything’s ready to go.”

Alli claims she’s been really lucky, “I have family here, and some really dedicated staff, and my mom helps out a lot.  I’ve also had some great mentors, like Dan Donohue who sells at Eastern Market – who has been a great coach. At the markets where I sell – whether it’s Eastern Market or Greenbelt – it’s like a family, and you have a real sense of community.”

Here’s a seasonal variation of Toyin Alli’s very popular Brown Butter Bourbon Pumpkin Bread Puddin’ – you can use canned pumpkin as a substitute for the cooked, but your local farmer will have a number of great varieties that can be used here, too.

 

Brown Butter Bourbon Pumpkin Bread Puddin’ by Toyin Alli

For bread puddin:

15 ounces of mashed (cooked) pumpkin, preferably fresh
2 cups half and half
1 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
10 cups cubed day old French bread

Preheat oven to 350.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, spices and salt until fully incorporated.  Combine pumpkin and half and half into egg mixture.  Gently fold the bread into the batter and pour into a greased shallow baking dish.  Bake for 45 minutes.

 

For bourbon sauce:

1 stick of butter
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 cups of bourbon
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt

Over medium heat, melt butter and keep heating until it is light brown.  Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients.  Return to medium high heat until sauce begins to gently boil and then reduce to low heat for 5 minutes.  

Pour the hot bourbon sauce on top of the puddin' and serve with a dollop of fresh cream.

DC Puddin’ can be found most weekends (Saturday and Sunday) at Eastern Market, and at other locations throughout the district during the week. To find Toyin Alli in her food truck, call 202.725.1030, follow on Facebook and Twitter; or visit dcpuddin.com.

Toyin Alli’s Wild Blue Catfish Po’ Boy, made from a locally sourced fish. The Wild Blue Catfish has been an invasive species since the 1980s, spreading into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It has now been adopted as a sustainable option for many chefs and institutions throughout the region.

Annette Nielsen has been engaged in food, farming and sustainability issues for nearly two decades. The food editor of the Hill Rag, Nielsen’s experience includes coordinating artisanal and farm-based food events and teaching cooking classes. She’s the editor of two Adirondack Life cookbooks, and is at work on an Eastern Market cookbook.  Nielsen heads up Kitchen Cabinet Events, a culinary, farm-to-fork inspired event business.  annette@hillrag.com.