Beyond the Lab: STEM in the Kitchen

What do cooking and STEM have in common? More than you might think! This holiday season, we interviewed Seattle-based chef Toni Thomas, who co-founded and co-owns Blk Pepper with her wife Shaun Williams. Blk Pepper’s clients include the Seattle Storm, University of Washington, and Seattle University.

Toni Thomas, co-owner of Blk Pepper, with her wife, Shaun Williams
Toni Thomas and Shaun Williams

We would love to learn more about your background. What got you into cooking?

Well, in my family we cook. Just about everyone has something they’re great at, on both sides. However, it was my mom and grandma who really fostered my love for cooking.

I played basketball in college and internationally, that was when my palate was refined. I was able to travel across the United States and to beautiful countries across the world where I experienced different cultures and cuisines.

My body eventually forced me to retire [from basketball], but the natural progression for me was coaching basketball. I had majored in Child and Adolescent Development and have always loved and felt connected to kids and young adults, so it felt natural… until COVID-19 hit. Everything stopped, and I had a lot of time to think about my life. I love basketball, but I wanted whatever came next to be something that filled my cup. My only other passion was food/cooking.

My wife, Shaun, works in tech, and was also a college athlete. She is an engineer and serves as a member of the U.S. Air Force. She just really wanted to support me. While I was going back and forth about whether it was possible, she started everything. She believed in me and willed me to start, and that’s how we got off the ground. She is now head of operations at Blk Pepper and pretty much assists in everything non-culinary. Shaun also controls and negotiates contracts and partnerships. So, the last step was that I had to actually start making money! That’s where Suzy Barcomb, who is head coach for Seattle University Women’s Basketball Team, and my boss, came in. Even though she was not thrilled that I was quitting, she offered me my first deal, and Seattle University Women’s Basketball Team was the first official team I fed! Now, my clients include Seattle University sports teams, University of Washington (UW) sports teams, Seattle Storm, professional athletes for my private chef services, and others.

In addition to being able to follow my passion for cooking, I also wanted to be able to spend more time with my family. They’re in California, but they’ve been with us all along this ride from the very beginning.

You work at the intersection of sports and food. How are STEM, sports, and cooking related, in your view?

Good question. Well from my experience, STEM takes both sports and cooking from something that is just instinctual and talent-based to the next level. I don’t think people realize how integral numbers are, from the chemistry/science of food, to odds and statistics in sports. It’s all connected.

What has your journey been like as a small, local business owner, as well as running a Black-, Queer-, and woman-owned business?

Ooohhh, you’re asking the real questions! Sometimes it’s really inspiring, and beautiful, and I feel like a bad-a**, and sometimes I’m really confounded by how much work really needs to be done. There are still clearly systemic issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia that are impacting the way that people from minority communities experience life.

One of the most frustrating and disappointing experiences we had was when we were looking for a space for the business and a few people made it very clear that they were not interested in doing business with us. I’m still incredibly encouraged by progress that has been made so far, but I’m also doing my part to push this forward.

What are some of your favorite ingredients that are Native to Seattle and WA? Where can we learn more about Indigenous culinary traditions?

Historically speaking, salmon was one of the “First Foods” in Washington. From my research, I understand that it was because it was easy to dry, cure, and store for the winter. Wild mint and dandelion were used to make medicinal teas. I love them all! The clams, oysters, and other shellfish in the Pacific Northwest are the best I’ve ever tasted. Then wild huckleberries, blackberries, cherries, and strawberries all grow on the property that we live on. The land here in the PNW is the actual gift that keeps on giving.

Thank you so much Toni and Shaun for taking time out of your busy schedules to speak with us. Happy Holidays!

Media Contact

Tracy Jad Sawan, Marketing and Communications Manager