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Art AND: Jinji Fraser

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Jinji Fraser doesn’t love eating chocolate. Don’t get her wrong: She likes it, but it’s not her desert island food. Her interest in chocolate lies more in its history, which is ancient, and the neverending iterations of savory and sweet she can create with it. She’s had a reverence for the confection since a fateful day in 2012 when, while working an event as a nutrition consultant, she stepped on a postcard advertising chocolate-making classes. Only a month or so later she was starting the business that became Pure Chocolate by Jinji with her father, Guy Fraser. 

In the early days, Fraser and her father promoted their product by “framing it in nutrition,” she says. “Everything that we made we wanted to be dairy-free and gluten-free with no refined sugars and just a healthful way for people to bridge that gap between the refined foods and holistic ones.” They were guided by a sense of purpose and a desire to do something creative together. But when they started the business, Guy, who formerly worked for the government, and Jinji, who had a desk job at Under Armour before becoming a nutrition consultant, had “no idea what we were doing,” she says with a laugh.

Despite starting before they knew exactly what they were getting into, the family has been rewarded—Pure Chocolate by Jinji still operates entirely out of their small storefront in Belvedere Square and is available throughout the DMV area in roughly two dozen high-end restaurants and specialty shops. They are a success on every level and, prior to COVID, were about a week away from opening the doors of a second location complete with a café space and chocolate-making classes. (Those plans have been put on hold indefinitely.) But Fraser’s thinking about her business’s motivations and raison d’être changed recently when she became aware of her own ancestral connection to the cacao growing region of Guyana, a South American country bordered by Venezuela, Brazil, and the Atlantic Ocean.

“All of a sudden, I feel this link to what I’m doing, not just through a postcard, but through ancestral DNA, which is completely different. It introduces a whole new world of discovery and exploration… just drawing parallels between that particular story and my purpose and what I’m doing now,” she says. “I feel fortunate because the way that we’ve run our business has been very much grounded in storytelling and nontraditional approaches to chocolate. It’s been very heartfelt and it’s been very intentional and I’ve always felt creative about what I was doing.”

Now Fraser feels it’s important to “explore the political edges” of her work, she says, “because I understand that chocolate is a very white male-dominated space. And trying to understand where I fit into that, up until this recent revelation, felt very intimidating. I was going into a craft [where] nobody looked like me. I had no example of how this could possibly work for someone that looked like me.” For Fraser, who was pregnant during our interview and will deliver a baby in October, becoming a mother has made securing a place for herself in the chocolate industry of the future feel essential, and knowing her genealogy has created a tangible link to her ancestors that she feels when holding chocolate, a connection that “any person of color, Black person, Indigenous, Mexican, we all share. That’s what we have that dominant space does not.” 

Her newfound political sense of purpose to reclaim what has historically been a white-dominant field has become more important to Fraser than the making of the chocolate. The colonial origins and capitalist persistence of the chocolate industry are heavy on her mind. “Reconciling all of these things,” she says, “the creativity, the making, the ancestry, the politics are a huge bundle that we’re constantly negotiating and trying to just make ourselves proud of what we’re doing.” In doing this work, Fraser, who has been interested in food anthropology since college, wants to be a “truth-teller” and has turned to writing lately. She expects to publish a couple of magazine pieces in the coming year that put the story of chocolate as seen by her ancestors in her own words.

Over Zoom, Fraser and I talked about family secrets, the challenges of being a female business owner, and how knowing chocolate’s history just might make you savor this limited resource a little bit more.

SUBJECT: Jinji Fraser, 37
WEARING: Black tee and black leggings, all Free People: “Their oversized style is perfect for my 8 months pregnant belly!”
PLACE: Zoom

Suzy Kopf: What are the most important books you’ve read or are reading? 

Jinji Fraser: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison, A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines, Half The Sky, Nicholas Kristoff & Sheryl WuDunn

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

Worst: Follow the leader. Best: Be careful who you tie your sails to (Luke Steckel).

When you’re not pregnant and it’s not a global pandemic, you are a world traveler. If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, where in the world would you want to live and why? 

Mexico. There’s a spirit of ancestral reverence there. People move slower and with kindness. There are no bounds to the nature open for exploration. I admire the entrepreneurial gusto, and the food is absolutely to live for.

How would you describe your relationship with failure? You had a completely different career for a time with Under Armour before opening Jinji’s Chocolates with your father eight years ago. Did it ever occur to you that you might not succeed or did you feel like failure is not an option?

Neither success nor failure was in my mind when we started the business. It all began so suddenly we didn’t have much time to think about how it would all shake out. We weren’t forcing anything to happen with our work, more accepting what was coming our way, trusting we were in the right place at the right time.

 

 

Have you always been a chef? How did you know? Was there ever another career path you considered that might have grown into a passion or was there something else you were encouraged to pursue?

No. And given the creating part of what I do only accounts for a very small percentage of my work, I really still don’t consider myself a chef. Traveling, researching, interviewing, writing, speaking (at times)—these are the things that make what I do special. I thought I would be an anthropologist when I was in college. And if that route failed, I could have been involved with criminal justice on some level.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for? 

No one loves her birthday more than me (and I love other people’s birthdays too)! No politics, no religion, no debate, no opinions—it’s the day we were born, and it’s a beautiful thing to be alive. Celebrate!

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

Different favorites all the time, but in this moment: Hersh’s! The Marinara, all day.

Is there anything you think potential customers should know about how workers are coping in the service industry right now as COVID and COVID closures drag on? In what ways can we support small businesses like yours in addition to spending money?

Everyone’s gotta follow the same rules! So getting bad attitudes around delays, mask policies, payment procedures and hours really makes our days even more difficult. Kindness and activism! Both go a long way in securing the future of small business on local levels and even globally.

The whole “life is short” mentality has always been very clear for me, so I keep perspective on what matters most at the end of the day—and that can change from day to day, so I try not to let any one thing be too overwhelming.
Jinji Fraser

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

I love numbers and doing numerology with friends. For fun, riding motorcycles with my husband—he got me hooked years ago. I have a Ducati Scrambler! 

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

I love my Wildfang overalls.

Is your work/life balance something that comes naturally to you or something you’ve had to learn over time? How do you protect your personal time and prevent running a successful business from encapsulating your whole life?

The whole “life is short” mentality has always been very clear for me, so I keep perspective on what matters most at the end of the day—and that can change from day to day, so I try not to let any one thing be too overwhelming. For me, it’s less categorizing what’s business, what’s personal, etc., and more just where am I finding and bringing the most joy in any given hour of any given day?

What are the last three emojis you used?

Heart eyes, the three hearts around the face, and the pumpkin

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in the Baltimore food scene?

Baltimore is special in that we love a small food business with a good idea. So be original, and have a good time—the people will come!

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I’m a Taurus Sun, Pisces Moon, and Sagittarius Rising! I love astrology and it absolutely brings purpose to my days. Chani Nicholas is my go-to astrologer.

Who are your business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

I admire Damian at Blacksauce and Dave at Ground and Griddled. They both love food and make decisions that put their families first! I’m also in awe of Irena at Alma and Barbara at Neopol. They are two über talented women who’ve reinvented themselves time and again—they’ve been making beautiful food for so long! I really love Emily’s style at Mera Kitchen too, because of how food is a vehicle for her toward justice and liberty. 

What would your teenage self think of you today?
So we have our own opinions now! SWEET!

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

Oh, it was the worst. My first post-teenage job was at a call center. I’ve blocked most of it out, but I got hung up on A LOT!

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind?

Breonna Taylor’s murderers got away with killing her. 

We spoke about how your view of your business has shifted with the current political moment—as a Black woman in the predominantly white and male world of chocolate you’re an exception twice over. Does this motivate or discourage you? In what ways are you using your voice to tell your personal story through the business?

I used to ignore my anomaly status. Now I embrace it as a big part of how I run my business and the decisions I make. It’s helped me to understand my ancestral belonging in my craft and also inspired some curiosity about how that might be a story shared with others in the chocolate industry. I’m hoping to explore this further in a couple of upcoming writing pieces. Stay tuned!

 

Pure Chocolate by Jinji has started offering a chocolate subscription for those of us trying to get a sweet fix during COVID times.

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