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by Sara Bavar
"A recipe itself has no soul. You as the cook must bring soul to the recipe."
~ Thomas Keller
Chef Deborah VanTrece wants you to know there is more to soul food than what you thought you knew. As the owner and head chef of the award-winning Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, VanTrece is defining her own rules as a female chef of color, in a male dominated and predominantly white industry. As a former flight attendant, Chef Deborah’s take on soul food is quite international, pulling the best ingredients from around the world and incorporating them into traditional recipes.
As an outspoken advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ rights, VanTrece is courageously using her voice to provoke a conversation on inclusion in the world of food and beverage. She recently wrote an eye-opening article for Resy, on the issue of systematic racism in the hospitality industry, and the need for an immediate call to change.
DLISH had the pleasure of speaking with Chef VanTrece about what needs to be done to invoke meaningful change in the hospitality industry, her inspirations, as well as her advice to restaurants for new chefs.
Sara Bavar: What has been the feedback from the industry and the general public regarding the Resy article you wrote?
Deborah VanTrece: I don't think anything I said was particularly earth-shattering. I think many in the hospitality industry knew that these issues existed. The reaction was more of an acknowledgment. Today, there seems to be a sustained movement made up of many voices. People seem to be invested in the push for change, which is encouraging. I hope that this push continues, both in the hospitality industry and outside of it.
SB: We are finally seeing a lot of organizations supporting Black-owned businesses and acknowledging their own shortcomings with diversity and inclusion. In your article, you mention that with each wave of activism you tell yourself “this time it is going to be different.” Do you think this time will be different?
DVT: The acknowledgment of these issues, and what it will take to correct them, is what gives me hope. As I said in the article, we must be the unstoppable force. To see a sustained movement to address this issue of systemic racism is what gives me hope. Too many times before this moment, there were periods of outrage that dissipated after a couple of weeks. What we are seeing now is seismic in terms of what it means to the movement.
SB: Is diversity finally going to be a part of the inevitable growth and sustainability of the food and beverage industry?
DVT: It is the only area where there is an opportunity for true change. If we can truly make changes in the food world in terms of diversity and inclusiveness, that will hopefully open the door for black chefs in terms of opportunity and investment. We have to make it easier for black chefs to rise through the ranks, and we need the private sector to open access to investment for black chefs.
SB: What advice would you give restaurants who want to make meaningful change in the industry?
DVT: Step out of your comfort zone. Seek out talented black chefs who may be serving as a sous chef or chef de cuisine, and groom them for executive chef roles. No one is asking for a handout. For too long, the access hasn't been there for black chefs, unless the restaurant owner was black. There are many black chefs out there that are ready to shine, and they just need an opportunity.
SB: You touch upon some of the adversity you faced, not only as a “Black entrepreneur” but also as an “LGBTQ business owner.” How were you able to overcome this and what, if any support system did you have?
DVT: Fortunately, my restaurant Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours is located in West Midtown Atlanta, which is a very progressive part of the city. They have embraced us, and we have embraced them right back. I think the goal one day is for people to want to eat at a restaurant because it's a great restaurant, not a great black or LGBT owned restaurant. But to have our community's support has not gone unnoticed. During the pandemic, when we had to close our dining room, we had people - some of whom were dealing with issues themselves - buy gift certificates or future catering jobs.
SB: Your restaurant, Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours’ global soul food concept is really trailblazing and an exciting culinary journey for your patrons. How much did your upbringing inspire the direction for Twisted Soul?
DVT: Many things have influenced my cuisine and my philosophy. Certainly, my childhood and upbringing in Kansas City influenced my cooking. But at the same time, so did my first career as a flight attendant for American Airlines. My international travels and experiencing other cultures had a big impact on my cooking style.
SB: What advice would you give to up and coming chefs?
DVT: Be tenacious and bold. Find a mentor who is willing to take you under her or his wing and be invested in your future. Opportunities are not given to those who don't ask for them. If you put in your dues and work your way up the ladder, you earn a chance to go onto the next step. After that, you need to be creative and different.
SB: Lastly, what can we, at DLISH as well as our readers do to be a part of meaningful change within the industry?
DVT: Listen. Be an ally for change. Look for opportunities that can be given to chefs who are black and people of color or women. Instead of the fourth story on a celebrity chef, look for up-and-coming chefs who are doing amazing things. Reach out to established chefs and ask them who they admire. My former executive sous chef, Chef Robert Butts, has created a niche for cooking with alcohol and spirits. In fact, at this year's Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, we're doing a dinner that focuses on the blues culture and incorporates "booze" as part of it. I will sing Chef Robert's praises because I truly believe in his talent and because he's earned a chance to do something special.
Click here to see more of Chef Deborah VanTrece's work and learn more about her mission.