The owner of The Spice Suite shares what it’s like traversing the planet in search of the world’s best spices.

By Danielle Pointdujour
July 10, 2020
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Credit: Erin Martin

Angel Gregorio is not your average chef. In fact, the former educator and Washington, D.C. native isn’t a chef at all. But, to the thousands of people who look to her as their “Spice Queen,” that fact doesn’t matter at all. When Gregorio decided to open The Spice Suite in her D.C. neighborhood back in 2015, she had no idea what she was doing or the adventures her love of food would take her on.

Since then, she has traveled from Turks and Caicos to Turkey and beyond building relationships with local spice owners, choosing the best ingredients for her small-batch, hand-blended creations you can't find anywhere else. Celebrity chefs and home cooks flock to the foodie sanctuary in search of globally sourced flavors like Carib-ish, Boom Chakalaka Blend, Citrus Sorrel Rub, and a lemon pepper hot sauce that Gregorio’s fans say will change your life. But for the doting mother of two who lives by the motto “Food is Fashion,” it’s supporting and partnering with other Black-woman-owned businesses along her journey that has been the real-life changer.

Travel + Leisure spoke with the self-taught flavor explorer about her culinary adventures, the local stories behind the spices, and about a new collaboration with songstress Kelis that will bring the best of two worlds directly to your plate.   

Credit: Erin Martin

Travel + Leisure: What made you decide to source your spices internationally?

Angel Gregorio: “My friend Boat, who is a comedian and in the military, traveled to Kuwait and surprised me with kilos of spices. When I opened the packaging, and smelled and tasted the quality of the spices, I knew I wouldn’t find that here in the states. I immediately began traveling to find more, and 19 countries later I haven’t looked back.”

Was there a particular dish that put a spice on your radar?

“There wasn’t a particular dish, especially since my story of randomly deciding to open a spice shop was so serendipitous, but when I traveled to Puerto Rico on my first spice excursion the food was notably different. While still a part of the U.S., this food was so foreign to me. It was so flavorful, bold, and well-seasoned. It was on this trip that I really started to pay attention to the distinct role that spices played in making a cuisine unique.”

What indigenous story do the spices you find tell?

“Spices tell love stories. When I’m in a market in Cairo, Egypt or Guadeloupe and the spice souk owner starts blending spices with me, the stories of how long they’ve been growing, blending and/or selling spices, the dishes they love to cook, the reasons why their curry, cumin, or tea is better than everyone else’s is always rooted in a love story. I’ve been told stories of centuries-old family businesses or husbands and wives who have been paying to send their children to the U.S. through spices, it’s all love.”

How have you managed to build relationships with international vendors and how important is it to you to support Black-owned businesses on your travels?

“Supporting Black-owned spice markets is extremely important because no matter what percentage of the population we are, we always need intentional and consistent support, especially Black women vendors, who I’ve found to be extremely rare in my experience. I’m also intentional about brokering relationships with the spice makers and vendors on my travels so that we can have a continued relationship.”

Speaking of relationships, tell us more about your upcoming partnership with R&B singer and chef, Kelis?

“Kelis and I organically connected on social media and it just made sense for us to collaborate on a spice box together. We both love food and fashion, and neither of us had ever partnered with another brand before. You can expect for the first box, debuting on July 10, to be an introduction to each of our brands, for those who don’t know us. The next box (hint, hint!), will be more of a fusion of our brands. I won’t say more as the element of surprise is what makes this exciting!”

Tell us about your most memorable spice trip?

 “My most memorable was Barbados because it was the first trip where I brought my son and daughter along. My daughter was just 8 weeks old and being able to immediately expose her to my world as a “SpiceGirl” was beautiful. My son was happy to have a companion and the weather, food, beaches, and spices were phenomenal. I brought back a Bajan jerk spice that is still sought after by customers. Another favorite was the Seychelles. Anytime I can leave the market and head straight to the beach is a good day!”

Do you feel that your spices help introduce people to flavors and cultures they might not have otherwise explored?

“Spices are such a fun and easy entry point to experiencing different cultures. Whether it’s simply salt and pepper or something fancier like saffron, cardamom and cumin, we all use spices.  It’s something we know our food needs, so getting someone to realize that you can simply change the spices you sprinkle on your food to “travel” to a different country is pretty magical. A little spice can take you from Trinidad & Tobago to New Delhi, India.”

What's your favorite culinary destination?

“The food in New Delhi was phenomenal. The experience in the restaurants of being given rose water and warm towels to cleanse my hands before eating, then mixes of spices and candies to cleanse the palette in between meals — yes, please!”

You're not a chef, but how did you develop your culinary savvy? Any tips for at-home cooks?

“I live by the motto ‘Food is fashion.’ I love taking risks in fashion. I will wear a sequin gown and Air Max 1s to the farmer’s market. I’m the same way at home in the kitchen. I mix and match things and experiment until it feels good. The only advice is to unlearn that there are poultry blends, steak blends, etc. There are spices and there is food. Mix them, no rules!”

What's the best piece of advice you've been given on your journey?

“I don’t know if it was advice, but the owner of the only spice shop in Puerto Rico told me she didn’t feel the need to open more spice shops and I needed that. I don’t want multiple locations either and her confidence, 20+ years into business, affirmed what I wanted for myself.”

When the world fully opens up again, where's the first place you're going?

I had trips planned for South Africa, Peru, Tanzania and Barcelona. I’ll take those trips first and then start adding more to the list.”