The chef and serial entrepreneur blends sweet and savory with life lessons from grandma Mama Dip in everything she does.
by Lori D. Roberts Wiggins | photography by Trey Thomas
Whether she serves the sweet or savory course, Tonya Council channels more than the legacy of her grandmother, Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, the Southern food icon behind Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a staple in the Chapel Hill food scene since 1976. She also reaches for a blend of home-style morals, values, and ethics that are as soul-filling as any ingredient the tongue can taste, any dish the heart can embrace.
“We were all taught the kitchen aspects of life, but while we were cooking, my grandmother was planting seeds about other things,” Council says. “Life lessons: how to live and give back, the business side of things — and she was always preaching to us to help people, and how to do it. We were always taught to use the best ingredients, and to always put your heart into it.”
Council’s roots run deep as a chef, small business owner, and community advocate. She was raised by her grandmother and mother, alongside seven aunts and uncles. “I was almost like the ninth brat,” Council laughs. “Whatever she taught them, she taught me — like to always help people and, if you don’t like the way it tastes, don’t serve it.” Since her grandmother’s death in 2018, Council’s aunts and uncles — and some cousins, too — oversee Mama Dip’s Kitchen.
Council struck out on her own, building a business that celebrates local food traditions. She owns Tonya’s Cookies, a baked-goods company, and is the curator of NC Made, a online specialty shop focused on local edibles. She also heads up the North Carolina food-focused Sweet Tea & Cornbread, which has a store in Crabtree Valley Mall and a restaurant at the North Carolina Museum of History.
“We’ve known Tonya for several years, and we consider her a good friend,” says Jo Wainwright, a co-owner of Little Switzerland-based Crow Bar Farm Foods whose goods are featured at NC Made. “We like being showcased with the best of the best,” says Sharon Smith, the other owner of the food brand. “It’s a real privilege. She believes in our quality and it’s a big feather in our cap to be featured in NC Made.”
“Tonya and her family have elevated North Carolina food, products, and traditions from regional pride to a national conversation,” says history museum director Ken Howard. “We have been very fortunate to have Tonya bring her talents and unique Southern food items to create our museum restaurant.”
Many of the items Council offers through her cookie business and restaurant have origins with Mama Dip: Tonya’s Pecan Crisp Cookies, for example, mimic the taste of Mama Dip’s famous pecan pie, which is revered for its chopped pecans and the pecan brittle that bakes to the top. A spate of boredom years ago led Council to try to replicate the taste of the pie in a cookie. Her grandmother gave it a thumbs-up in a taste test, and with a few tweaks, she made the recipe official; light, crisp, and gluten-free.
On the menu at the museum grill, there are chicken salad sandwiches — inspired by Mama Dip’s classic chicken salad, served on a croissant — and a BLGT, which adds another Southern delight, fried green tomato, to the traditional BLT. “I stick to my roots, but I put my own twist on it as well,” says Council.
Council shops at farmer’s markets in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Raleigh for home and business, often buying from vendors who share fond memories of her grandmother and whose children also are stepping up as second-generation business owners. It’s one way she gives back to the community, Council says.
And last year, there was a big surprise: Council’s Pecan Crisp Cookies made it onto the holiday list of Oprah’s Favorite Things. The day the list was unveiled, Tonya’s Cookies received 500 orders. The orders have kept coming ever since, straining store shelves and the cookie supply at Mama Dip’s Kitchen, Council says. Already understaffed due to the pandemic, Council had to halt operations at her baking kitchen in Chapel Hill and temporarily close the eatery at the museum to keep up with demand.
“It was overwhelming with all the making, baking, packing, and shipping!” she says. A boon to her business, but also challenging — and an opportunity to reassess. “It may be time for something bigger,” Council says of her baking space. And she’s starting to think aboug how to franchise the business in other states. “I’d like to show other people how to support local, give back, and help other vendors get their products in front of people,” Council says.
Whether it’s for a giftable treat or a meal with family, Council believes in putting your heart into whatever you make, and only sharing the good. “To me, it’s all about comfort and food — what you crave when you’re missing home,” Council says. “It’s about the Sundays, when people cook together, then sit down at the table to eat together, talk to each other, encourage each other, and enjoy that first good meal of the week.”
This story originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine