Chef Deborah VanTrece
Chef Deborah VanTrece is certainly no stereotype. When I asked her how much it occurs to her that she’s almost a perfect embodiment of the current conversation around diversity in the culinary world — particularly as it regards Southern cooking and the ongoing debate around who owns soul food — she admitted to being very aware that she fits the bill.
“Yeah, I check all the boxes,” VanTrece answered, with a laugh. She's not only a black chef and restaurant owner, but also a black woman who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. “This is just who I am,” she said with an elegant voice that exudes both comfort and confidence. “You get it all with me.”
We’re certainly getting a lot of VanTrece at the moment. This past spring, she has become not just a star chef in Atlanta, where her restaurant Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours is based, but also a culinary darling of New York City, where it’s not uncommon for talented people based in the South to go when it’s time for the rest of the world to know their names.
VanTrece and her wife Lorraine Lane, co-owner of Twisted Soul, were recently featured in a New York Times Style Magazine story, titled “The Female Couples Remaking the Restaurant Industry.” Along with two other prominent restaurateur couples, they shared their experiences of running a restaurant and finding success in such a male-dominated business without losing themselves or their partners in the process.
And just three months ago, VanTrece, along with mixologist Tiffanie “The Drinking Coach” Barriere and chef and author Jennifer Hill Booker, took over The James Beard House in New York City. Their Beard dinner was the final event in a collaborative, interactive, three-part dinner and cocktails series called “Cast Iron Chronicles,” which began in Atlanta last December. As attendees enjoyed Southern ceviche, piquant fried chicken livers and lemon blueberry moonshine pound cake, the three ladies told stories of their own culinary careers and individual journeys through the rich history of soul food.
Back in Atlanta, VanTrece has been heralded for 20 years as the chef and owner of two beloved restaurants: Edible Art in the East Atlanta neighborhood and Twisted Soul, which originally opened in Decatur but has been located in Atlanta’s bustling Westside since December 2016. The relocation gathered lots of local media attention, with longtime customers from all sides of the city reportedly counting down the days until Twisted Soul’s reopening.
While the restaurant’s website describes VanTrece’s menu as “good, simple food,” that might be a bit too simple of a statement when you realize her version of wings and hash browns actually employs grilled duck, sweet potatoes and bourbon-peach preserves. You can order ribs, baked beans and cole slaw, but you’ll taste sweet tea in those bones and you’ll find pork belly in the beans, not to mention you’ll notice that your slaw is made with kale. And depending on where you’ve last enjoyed a plate of oxtails and rice, you'll probably find something very different at Twisted Soul; there, the oxtails are hoisin-sauced, the rice is veggie-fried, and you get a side of ginger shallot bok choy.
People love VanTrece’s style, and not just in the culinary sense. With her short-cropped, brilliantly blonde hair, designer eyeglass frames, and chic chef’s coat, she’s a lively lady whose personality shines brightly — a unicorn who stands out even in a restaurant business where unique personalities are everywhere.
I’ve gotten to know a little more about VanTrece since writing about her at Thrillist, and hosting the entire Cast Iron Chronicles gang in the Southern Kitchen studios for an episode of our podcast. During the conversation, she made it clear that while she’s intently focused on what guests experience at Twisted Soul, she also feels a bigger responsibility to create opportunities for people like her — kindred souls of soul food cooking who are looking for entry points.
“I think we are starting to open some doors,” she said. “I know that I am one of the few [who own] soul food restaurants, black-female-owned. Even black-owned.”
Contrary to what diners may expect from a proud soul food chef, VanTrece makes no attempt to sugar-coat anything, particularly when it comes to appropriation of the cuisine. “We’re hoping that through [our] conversation[s], we’ve educated people to understand that it is a lot more difficult — if you’re not a white male — to succeed in the culinary field. That’s just how it is.”
VanTrece didn’t seem to want to directly name anyone, but she obviously wants the record to show the true origins of what she does so well in the kitchen. “There are things that we do and all of a sudden you see them on [a] 'Southern' restaurant menu. There are a lot of people out there watching us and taking some of the ideas. I ain’t mad at ‘em, but in my heart of hearts I know where those ideas and recipes are coming from. And I do think the type of credit that soul food — traditional African-American soul food — deserves, it’s still not coming as quick as it should.”
There has been at least some recent long overdue credit given, in the form of James Beard Awards for chef Nina Compton, writer Osayi Endolyn and pastry chef Dolester Miles. But any award-related progress must also go hand-in-hand with creating real paths for black and female chefs to have a chance to stand on equal ground as others. And that’s where VanTrece said she’s aiming her efforts.
“What’s interesting is I started this journey with my first restaurant in 1998. I closed it because I got a divorce and was raising my kid, and thought, ‘I can’t do this right now; I’ll revisit it later.’ But to revisit it years and years later, and realize there’s not been a lot of progress in that field, [after] all those years. … Back then I was the one and only, and here we are almost 20 years later, and some of the doors are still closed, from acquiring the financing to our food, which was something that was looked down upon. Now I think we’re coming into an age with the food is starting to get its respect. And with the food getting respect, the chefs, you have to give ‘em credit.”
That includes the Kansas City native herself. Since she’s no newcomer to the restaurant business, she knows standing around in the kitchen of her westside Atlanta restaurant waiting on the world to change isn’t an option, just as it wasn’t an option when she first decided to become a professional chef — a decision she said was based on taking control of her livelihood. But she admitted that it wasn’t obvious that she’d ultimately be successful when she first began.
“I hadn’t even worked at McDonald’s,” she laughed. “For my first job I got to work in a concession stand at a zoo in Kansas city, and I got fired, day one. That was not for me.”
VanTrece became a married mom and attended the University of Missouri, where she studied fashion merchandising before becoming a flight attendant, which gave her the opportunity to travel the world and planted her in Atlanta. But after a flight attendant strike left her vulnerable, she realized she didn’t like the feeling of losing control and “watching others determine what your next move should be.”
“One thing I knew I was good at was cooking," she said. "And it just so happens that I was watching TV and an ad comes up for the Art Institute of Atlanta’s culinary program. I made the decision right then and there that that would be what my next move was. It’s an idea I had toyed with in the past, but I was married and had a daughter, and there weren’t a lot of options for culinary school, especially locally. I just couldn’t see how I was going to leave the city and stay a wife, and a mom. Once I realized the Art Institute had a culinary program here in Atlanta, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
She paid for her schooling out of pocket, which she said made her intensely focused on being successful and getting everything she could from the experience. “I was very serious about it, and I came in with the idea that people were going to give me my money’s worth, like grownups do.”
After finishing culinary school as valedictorian, VanTrece said she was quick to work for other chefs to gain knowledge of the industry, since she had no experience cooking professionally. “I look back on it sometimes, and think, ‘Girl, you didn’t know nothing.’ I just knew this was what I loved. That was my motivation. And after working for a couple people, I had my own ideas and had formulated my own opinions of how I thought this thing should work, and decided it was time to go out on my own. Once you get to a point where you’re pushing back at the people who pay you, it’s time for you to go on. It’s a lesson my mother taught me. When you get that grown, it’s time for you to leave.”
After receiving heavy praise for the globally inspired dishes she served while catering for foreign dignitaries attending Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic games, VanTrece went on to open Edible Art. The menu featured a popular salad made with mixed greens, yellow tomatoes, green beans, carrots, sprouts, pecan-crusted goat cheese, cranberry peppercorn vinaigrette and cornbread croutons. It was called the “Twisted Soul,” the namesake of the restaurant she calls “the latest version of my heart.”
“My food there reflects my lifestyle, my travels," she said. "I’ve had the opportunity to live all over the world, and I have the belief that soul food is part of everyone’s culture, to a degree. We all have some type of soul food — the food that brings us back to our home, to our heart or our culture. To our family. What I try to do is make those memories in a culinary way when guests come in to enjoy what we have.”
These days VanTrece’s voice and culinary talent are amplified higher than ever before. Both her evangelism regarding soul food’s legitimacy and her seriousness about seeing that proper credit is given to whom it’s due have given her a level of power and influence that she is using to create the changes she expects to see.
“We’re trying to open all kinds of doors," she said. "One specifically is to help other minorities in this field to come into their own. It’s necessary for us to do that. There are a lot of female chefs that have come out of the woodwork that wanna hear what we’re talking about, and know where they can hear what’s being said. They’re going through their own trials and tribulations, wherever they are. This has been across the country, not just locally, that we’re getting feedback. Our goal was to knock a door down, not just open it. And I think we’re almost there.
"But we have decided that after James Beard there are still some things we can continue to do. I have a spot; I can host dinners. I can bring chefs in and provide them with a place where they can do their thing. And hopefully we can get some other people — investors, financers — to come in and start taking a look and banking money on some of us sometimes. We’re not gonna get big, any of us, without someone giving us a chance, and opportunity, at some point.”
Story images: David Chow