Chef Deborah VanTrece is redefining soul food
It took Chef Deborah VanTrece over 20 years to become an overnight success. Now it’s almost impossible to ask for restaurant recommendations in Atlanta without hearing the name “Twisted Soul Kitchen and Bar.”
A former American Airlines flight attendant and founder of Edible Art Café and Gourmet Catering, VanTrece’s exposure to world cuisine during her travels, paired with her catering background and culinary education, laid the foundation for the restaurant that has everyone from across the state traveling to Decatur for a taste.
Georgia Voice sat down with the “Food Fighters” winner and Art Institute of Atlanta valedictorian to find out the story behind her success as one of the few African-American female chefs who also happens to be a married lesbian.
Georgia Voice: You started out as a caterer, right?
My main focus was catering. I kinda threw together my first restaurant. I was surprised that food critics came and people showed up. It was off the beaten path and very tiny. I thought if you were a food critic that you were going to five star restaurants in Buckhead. It was only like 700 square feet of space. I knew one day I wanted to do it on a different level.
How did you decide on the name Twisted Soul?
There was a salad, which I still have on the menu that was called Twisted Soul salad. And I thought, that’s a cool name, I like that name. So if I do another restaurant that’s gonna be the name of it. I didn’t know it would take me 16 years.
Your restaurant has become quite popular. Are you feeling any pressure to live up to people’s expectations?
There is pressure. I’ll be honest; sometimes it’s a very lonely place that I’m in. There’s very few African-American female chefs, there’s not even a lot of African-Amer- ican male chefs. So sometimes I’m standing alone, that’s where I feel the pressure. I’m trying to represent a group of women ... there’s some I know in other cities and I look at them looking at me. They’re cheering me on and I’m trying to stand up to that.
What makes the Twisted Soul experience so unique?
I think the thing that sets me aside is that I have this knack for making it pretty. When I chose soul food, my thought was that it’s underrated. Our food is good! Why does our food have to always be served cafeteria style? Why does our food have to be put on a plate and you get a little bowl of a side? Why can’t we figure out how to make it look like that five-star restaurant? And that was the challenge I put upon myself and that’s what I was determined to do with the food that was familiar to me. Twist it up a little bit and make it pretty.
Are you in the kitchen every day?
Not every day, but I can’t stay out too long. I’ve got some great people who duplicate what I do very well. We do recipes as a guide. But like I tell them, if you can’t cook you can’t work for me (laughs). There’s only so much that I can teach you. Sometimes I have young chefs who come in that are not used to that and it’s scary to them. I have to push them. It’s kinda sad. I have to push you to pick up seasoning? Are you crazy? (laughs) That’s why they make it. Pick up some seasoning.
Does being an African-American lesbian in the culinary industry present additional challenges?
Believe it or not, in the culinary industry the assumption is almost always made that as a female you’re a lesbian. A lot of times it’s the lesbian women who are like, I’m gonna go man to man with you (laughs). Me and Lorraine just married about two years ago or so. She handles the bar and we work as partners in the business. It really hasn’t come up too much. We’re those safe lesbians (laughs). We aren’t intimidating. People have been pretty accepting of us. I guess they say if you’re gonna like a couple of them we’re the ones to like.
How will you be celebrating Christmas?
It’s going to be a more intimate group of people compared to Thanksgiving. I usually do something with lobster and prime rib and caviar. We also like to prepare food for the elderly who will not have a Christmas meal. We’ll go and hand out meals to nursing homes and senior citizen homes. For Thanksgiving we fed three or four elderly lesbians who didn’t have families.
“When I chose soul food, my thought was that it’s underrated. Our food is good! Why does our food have to always be served cafeteria style? Why does our food have to be put on a plate and you get a little bowl of a side? Why can’t we figure out how to make it look like that 5 star restaurant?”
— Chef Deborah VanTrece
Chef Deborah VanTrece is a Georgia Voice 2015 Best of Atlanta recipient for Best New Restaurant for Twisted Soul Kitchen & Bar (Photo by Fred Spears)