With a nationwide cookie business, retail store and cafe, Chef Tonya Council is the epitome of a culinary entrepreneur. She started her career at Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a beloved Chapel Hill, North Carolina restaurant founded by her grandmother, Mildred Council. In 2009, Tonya turned her pecan crisp cookie recipe into her own business, Tonya’s Cookies. That led to the 2017 launch of Sweet Tea & Cornbread, her retail store specializing in gourmet Southern foods and North Carolina-made products. In addition, Tonya has operated Sweet Tea & Cornbread Grill & Eatery at the North Carolina Museum of History since 2019.
We caught her in between baking to get the inspiration for her famous pecan crisp cookies, her earliest cooking memories and the misconceptions people have about Southern food.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
I started off in the kitchen with my grandmother, peeling and chopping, washing dishes, helping out in her restaurant. I was probably around 8 or 9.
Can you tell me about your grandmother, Mildred Council?
She started her restaurant in 1976, and it became a family type thing—all the kids worked there, and later the grandkids came on board. I learned all about cooking, everything from recipes to the business side [of running a restaurant]. She was a real big mentor in the community of Chapel Hill.
What was the inspiration for your pecan crisp cookies?
Growing up, I used to help my grandmother shell pecans. Sitting at home in front of the fireplace, cracking pecans, that was our bonding time.
We had brought a display case into [Mama Dip’s Kitchen], but half of it was empty. I wanted to figure out a way to add more products, and I wanted to make a cookie that tasted like my grandma’s pecan pie.
It took awhile—I was running into the kitchen between waiting tables and mixing stuff together.
I was about to throw another batch away, but my grandma tasted it and said, “You got it. Put it in the display case, and the customers will let you know.” The cookies were gone in a few hours.
What makes your cookies unique?
It’s just like eating air, they’re so light and crispy. They have a meringue texture—people say they’re like eating the top of a pecan pie.
Why did you expand into retail with your store, Sweet Tea & Cornbread?
I was trying to get Tonya’s Cookies into the mall, but Mrs. Fields had paid a lot of money to be the only cookie company in the mall. Then the idea came: I knew all these people who had products and had a hard time getting them into stores. I could not only sell my stuff, but sell their stuff too.
What are some misconceptions people have about Southern food?
That it’s not healthy—people think it’s all about greasy stuff and fried okra. Lots of this stuff is from the garden. [At Sweet Tea & Cornbread Grill & Eatery], I try to use the farmers market as much as possible.
What’s your favorite thing on your menu?
The BLT with fried green tomatoes!
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