Chef Deborah VanTrece on Being a Black Lesbian Creating New Soul Food
The chef behind Twisted Soul also shares what comes next -- and a favorite recipe.
May 10 2022 8:00 AM EST
May 10 2022 4:05 AM EST
The chef behind Twisted Soul also shares what comes next -- and a favorite recipe.
Amid a pandemic, chef Deborah VanTrece had a pretty good year. Her first cookbook, The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors, came out in 2021 and garnered great reviews. And the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival declared her Chef of the Year.
"The release of my first cookbook was huge, both personally and professionally," VanTrece says. "Everything that went into it has paid off because it has been a tremendous success."
That success was anything but foreordained. "When I first started out, I had three strikes against me. I am Black, I am female, and I am a lesbian," VanTrece recalls. "When I opened the first iteration of Twisted Soul in Decatur, Ga., I encountered a lot of racism and there was a definitive 'You don't belong here' vibe. Those three strikes were hard to overcome."
The Twisted Soul Cookbook is a culmination of VanTrece's life and culinary career. "It began with my memories from when I was a child watching my mother and grandmother cooking in the kitchen or my father sipping moonshine over a BBQ pit in Kansas City. I was also deeply influenced by my three decades as a flight attendant for American Airlines. I was able to visit many international destinations and learn about the different cultures and different foods in those places."
But, VanTrece says, "I didn't want this book to be a collection of recipes. You have to tell a story about a journey, about what inspires you, about the different foods that you have yet to discover."
The cookbook also draws heavily from VanTrece's Atlanta-based restaurant Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours and her commitment to the traditional foods of Black Southerners. "I don't think that soul food, much like Black chefs, has ever gotten the respect that it deserves," she says. "When you mention 'soul food' people tend to think of simple fried comfort food with roots in Black communities in the American South. And while we don't want to lose that connection, that tends to be a simplistic and one-dimensional view."
The first section of Twisted Soul is dedicated to leftovers and leavings, the kind of ingredients that VanTrece says go back to "when slaves would use the cast-offs of the food and create with those ingredients. Head cheese is an example of this. Slave owners did not want anything to do with the head of a pig. Even after emancipation, hog head cheese has remained an important part of African-American cuisine."
"I embrace soul food cooking...because I think it deserves to be elevated," VanTrece says. "People tend to play down the influence that African-Americans have had on the food of the U.S., and then they try to take our traditions away from us. They refer to soul food as 'Southern food' to dilute it and make it palatable to a larger group of people."
A culinary artist with vision, VanTrece not only elevates soul food but gives it a twist, bringing in global influences. "My philosophy for my style of cooking...[is] diving into different cultures and incorporating elements or ingredients into the concept of soul food. My international travels heavily influenced my approach to cooking and my style, which I call 'modern global soul food.' Every country has its version of soul food."
Part of what drives VanTrece is "wanting to introduce people to different cultures, and that includes soul food. I think Americans are very safe when it comes to what they will eat. I think we need to be a little more adventurous in what we try, because it just might become something you love to eat -- and cook at home."
VanTrece is taking steps toward new adventures, starting with naming Robert Butts as the new executive chef at Twisted Soul so that she could take on other challenges. "That freed me up to concentrate on the cookbook and other endeavors. For me to tackle all of that, I had to take a step back and hand the reins to someone else who could build on what I had created."
Twisted Soul is a family affair, with the bar program under the direction of VanTrece's daughter, Kursten Berry, who shares "moonshine flights" and twisted spins on classics like the Havana-Old Fashioned or When Harry Met Helen or the Thai Basil Mint Julep. Next, Berry and VanTrece are collaborating on Dulcet, a speakeasy spearheaded by Berry, planned to open later this year.
But that's not all. VanTrece is creating the menu for Dulcet, and she and her wife, Lorraine Lane, are launching two new restaurants in the historic Cascade Heights neighborhood in Southwest Atlanta: Oreatha's, which opened in April and dives deeper into global comfort foods, and Serenidad, a Latin-influenced menu inspired the chef's travels to Latin destinations.
Bacon-Praline Macaroni And Cheese
"James Hemings, the chef and slave of Thomas Jefferson, is credited for introducing the nation to what we call macaroni and cheese. Originally it was considered a refined, upper-crust dish with roots stretching back to Italy, France, and England. As the dish gained popularity and its ingredients became more accessible to the average person, it became more of a comfort food for the masses, rather than a dish reserved for the rich.
For me, its roots trace back to the '60s when commodity food, which included processed cheese, was distributed by the government to tables like mine. Although I have tasted versions of this dish all over the world, with cheeses produced by artisans, it still doesn't compare to ones I've had in the most humble of kitchens. The women of my family were well versed in turning commodity cheese into liquid gold. It was a cheap dish that could feed a lot of people.
This updated version puts a fun twist on a historic dish and is great for serving large groups or for a potluck supper. It can be made days in advance and frozen for convenience. If this recipe is too large, you can freeze half of it for another meal. Just thaw and reheat it in a 325-degree F oven for 20 minutes until heated through. Now that's comfort!" Serves 12
6 cups elbow macaroni,
1 tablespoon Lawry's Seasoned Salt
1 tablespoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
3 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
8 cups milk, warmed
6 ounces cream cheese, diced
12 ounces American cheese, diced
3 large eggs
8 ounces applewood-smoked bacon
(8 to 10 slices), cooked and crumbled
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups coarsely chopped pecans or pecan pieces
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Transfer the cooked macaroni to a large bowl. In a small bowl, stir together the seasoned salt, white pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder. Sprinkle half of this seasoning mixture and 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese over the macaroni and toss to combine. In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and continue to whisk for 3 to 5 minutes, until it makes a light roux. Reduce the heat to medium and whisk in the milk. Once all the milk is incorporated, cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the sauce reaches a simmer. Add the diced cream cheese and American cheese in batches, stirring until smooth. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of the remaining shredded cheddar cheese and turn off the heat. Add the remaining seasoning mixture and stir well. Quickly whisk in the eggs until they are incorporated.
Spread the macaroni mixture evenly into a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles to cover, then fold in the chopped bacon. Top with the remaining 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese. Cover the skillet with foil, transfer to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling around the edges.
For The Topping: In a medium bowl, stir all the ingredients together with a fork. Remove the foil from the baked macaroni and cheese, sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the top, and return, uncovered, to the oven. Bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the topping is golden brown. Let the dish rest for 15 minutes before serving.
This story is part of The Advocate's 2022 Champions of Pride issue, which is out on newsstands May 17, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.