The award-winning Atlanta chef talks gender roles, mentorship, and the boundary-breaking soul food at her restaurant, Twisted Soul.

By Kelundra Smith
May 12, 2021
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Chef Deborah VanTrece
Credit: Fred Spears Photography

At the release party for The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors, photos from chef Deborah VanTrece's childhood, as well as her days as a model and flight attendant, decorated her acclaimed Atlanta restaurant, Twisted Soul. VanTrece, who worked for American Airlines before becoming a chef, cites travel as a major influence on her food, which includes globally minded Southern dishes like black-eyed pea hummus, hoisin oxtails with bok choy, and mole sous-vide short rib.

"Every culture has a green sauce," she said, pointing to salsa verde, English pea purée, and chimichurri. VanTrece plays with global through lines throughout the cookbook, which features no-waste recipes like braised adobe wings with coconut gravy and foie gras dirty rice. 

The release party was a full circle moment for VanTrece, who recalled during our conversation days of catering events for hundreds of people out of her home kitchen. When the gas stove wasn't working, she used the grill. She often shares these experiences with the younger chefs who call her to bounce ideas and glean wisdom. She tells them the things that she wishes someone had told her when she first entered the industry.   

Here, VanTrece reflects on her journey to becoming a star chef and the importance of paying it forward.

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

I tried to include recipes for beginners, intermediate, and advanced cooks. The chicken thigh and sweet potato hash, salmon croquette, and compound butters are simple and straightforward. A woman who said she's never really cooked told me she made the crawfish gravy with scallion, goat cheese, and black pepper biscuits, and her husband said it was one of the best things he's had in his life. That was one of my proud moments.

Now, the oxtail requires a little bit of skill and so does the hog head cheese. There are some things that are grilling, and I know that everyone is not comfortable on the grill, but don't be intimidated. Don't burn it, and you'll be okay.

You went from American Airlines to chef. Who were your mentors?

I really had no mentors. When I decided to go from being a flight attendant to cooking professionally, I didn't know what it entailed. I didn't know it was white male dominated. Growing up with very traditional roles, all the women cooked, and they were proud of that. Women not cooking never entered my head. I guess at the point it became a monetary thing, that's apparently when someone decided that women were incapable of doing this. I didn't realize that until I got way up into the business. It didn't stop me initially because I came into the industry with rose-colored glasses on. When it finally hit me, I said, "Okay, I'm going to do what we always have to do, which is work three times harder."

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

As African Americans, access to capital is the main barrier. Then, there's the idea, even amongst ourselves, that the food we grew up with is no good. Then on the same token, there's the idea that soul food is all we know how to do. All these stereotypes are put upon us—that we don't understand other cultures, that we don't know how to pair wines, that we don't give good service. We catch it from both ends.

You recently named Robert Butts the executive chef at 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 attain status as a chef, it was always in my heart that I'm looking for the next person to take this job from me. I'd worked with Robert on and off for years. He's a mentee, and I always kept my eye on him. It was an honor when it came time.

I've cooked on my stove when I didn't have any money and went to the beauty shop to sell plates. The hustle has been real for me and I understand it on all levels. I also went to culinary school and was valedictorian. There's a lot of knowledge in me, and it's a pleasure for me to share it if it makes someone else's life a little bit easier.

For you, food is about fellowship and that'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 similarities in cultures and memories, the memories and fellowship that they grew up with. Everybody has good memories around food. With every culture there's strife and struggle. There's the thing you ate when had no money and what you ate when you got lots of money. All of these are memories. I know it's a lot, but that's what I felt when I was working on the book. It's that connection, the thing that brings us together.