How Chef Deborah VanTrece Became the Mentor She Always Wanted

During the night out for The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors, photos of the chef Deborah VanTreceHer childhood, as well as her days as a model and flight attendant, decorated her acclaimed restaurant in Atlanta, Twisted Soul. VanTrece, who worked for American Airlines before becoming a chef, cites travel as a major influence on his food, which includes global-minded Southern dishes like black pea hummus, oxtails hoisin with bok choy. and the short vacuum-packed mole ribs.

Deborah VanTrece wears glasses: Fred Spears Photography

© Provided by Food & Wine
Photography Fred Spears

Deborah VanTrece Wearing Glasses: The award-winning Atlanta chef talks about gender roles, mentorship, and groundbreaking soul food at her restaurant, Twisted Soul.

© Fred Spears Photography
The award-winning Atlanta chef talks about gender roles, mentorship and groundbreaking soul food at her restaurant, Twisted Soul.

“Every culture has a green sauce,” she said, pointing to salsa verde, mashed English peas and Chimichurri. VanTrece plays with the overall lines throughout the cookbook, which features waste-free recipes like braised adobe wings with coconut sauce and dirty rice with foie gras.

The night out was a looping moment for VanTrece, who in our conversational days recalled dining events for hundreds of people out of his home kitchen. When the gas stove was not working, she would use the grill. She often shares these experiences with young chefs who call on her to bounce ideas and glean wisdom. She tells them the things she wished someone had told her when she entered the industry.

Read more: This new cookbook is a must have for anyone who loves Soul Food

Here, VanTrece reflects on his journey to becoming a Michelin-starred chef and the importance of taking it forward.

For many people, soul food cookbooks can be intimidating due to the amount of ingredients and the time they take. What recipes would you recommend for amateurs versus pros?

I have tried to include recipes for beginner, intermediate and advanced cooks. Chicken thigh and sweet potato hash, salmon nuggets and mixed butters are simple and straightforward. A woman who said she never really cooked told me she made the crayfish sauce with scallion, goat cheese and black pepper cookies, and her husband said it was one of the best things he had in his life. It was one of my proud moments.

Now oxtail takes a bit of skill, as does pork head cheese. There are things that do, and I know not everyone is comfortable on the grill, but don’t be intimidated. Don’t burn it and you’ll be fine.

You’ve gone from American Airlines to chef. Who were your mentors?

I really didn’t have any mentors. When I decided to switch from flight attendant status to professional kitchen, I didn’t know what that involved. I didn’t know it was dominated by white males. Growing up with very traditional roles, all the women cooked and they were proud of it. Women who don’t cook have never entered my head. I guess when it became a monetary thing, that’s apparently when someone decided that women were unable to do it. I didn’t realize it until I got into the business. It didn’t stop me initially because I entered the industry with rose-colored glasses. When it finally hit me, I said, “Okay, I’m going to do what we always have to do, which is work three times as hard.”

Tell me a little more about the specific obstacles you encountered.

As African Americans, access to capital is the biggest obstacle. Then there is the idea, even among us, that the food we grew up on was not good. Then, at the same time, there is the idea that nourishing the soul is all we can do. All these stereotypes are imposed on us – that we do not understand other cultures, that we do not know how to pair wines, that we do not provide a good service. We catch it from both sides.

You recently appointed Robert Butts Executive Chef of Twisted Soul, and he led the kitchen at your cookbook launch event. What made you decide it was time to hand over the reins?

It’s always what I wanted. As I achieve chef status, it has always been in my heart that I was looking for the next person to take this job for me. I had worked with Robert from time to time for years. He’s a mentee and I’ve always kept my eye on him. It was an honor when the time came.

I cooked on my stove when I had no money and went to the beauty salon to sell plates. The turmoil has been real to me and I understand it on all levels. I also went to culinary school and was a valedictorian. There is a lot of knowledge in me, and it’s a pleasure for me to share it if it makes someone else’s life a bit easier.

For you, food is about fellowship and it’s something we can all use right now. What do you want people to take away from the book?

I want people to start thinking about the similarities between the cultures and the memories, the memories and the brotherhood that they grew up with. Everyone has fond memories of the food. With every culture there are conflicts and struggles. There is what you ate when you had no money and what you ate when you had a lot of money. These are all memories. I know it’s a lot, but that’s how I felt when I was working on the book. It’s that connection, the thing that brings us together.

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