Try advising Deborah VanTrece that she’s in the wrong line of work. She’ll disappear into her Twisted Soul kitchen in West Atlanta, whisk up a soulful, inspired meal, then make you eat your own words.
A mixture of feisty and passionate, she’s a chef with a heaping amount of soul. It’s the secret to her success, she says. Each recipe shares a story from her childhood, twisted into her global travels. When combined, she offers culinary perfection.
“I wanted to utilize the techniques that I learned and apply them to the food I grew up with. I felt my food was worthy of the same attention as other cuisines,” she says. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, VanTrece grew up eating food that narrated a unique story. Her family recipes were filled with the struggles of having nothing. To transform that nothing into a warm-cooked meal meant her determination was bigger than her setbacks.
For years she flew around the country, serving peanuts and beverages to travelers as a flight attendant. It wasn’t her idea of the culinary perfection she imagined, but it was a career full of diversity and helped her fit the roll. In 1994, VanTrece entered the culinary world where the color of her skin, gender, and sexual orientation would be key ingredients for change in the kitchen. What could be considered a triple whammy to some, she saw being as a triple threat. She broke barriers on a daily basis in and out of the kitchen.
“I was so focused on doing the best job I could learning. I kind of had blinders on: There’s nobody here that looks like you,” she says. “Fast forward to now, out in the real world, I’m like, ‘Girl, that should’ve been the least of your worries.’”
Edible Art Cafe opened its doors in 1998 in a quiet, East Atlanta neighborhood that was predominantly African-American and lower income. It was expected that the VanTrece venture would succeed. After taking time out of the kitchen for several years, she decided to rekindle her passion. She thought, ‘Why not cook where I’ve never cooked before?’ Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pour was a similar concept but in a different part of town. She took her soul food deep into an affluent part of West Atlanta.
“Things were said to me that made me feel as if someone thought I was stepping out of my place,” she explains on the opening her newest restaurant. “How dare you present soul food in a different way? How dare us be unable to come into a black neighborhood at a greasy spoon type place and you’re sloshing it out cafeteria style. If you’re not producing that, then my expectations of you are out the window and how dare you think you can come and compete with the white male chef in what they do?”
For years, she felt like soul food was seen in a negative light. Designating it by what it undoubtedly was — food for the soul — seemed to be a strike against her talents regardless of how unique the food tasted.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m still here. No one is going to stop me. I’ve been doing it for years,” she says. “But I also find myself feeling a little bit more apprehensive about just feeling like I can go anywhere to cook. I’m very careful as to what I sign up for.” VanTrece recalls an incident involving a friend and mixologist who helped her create Cast Iron Chronicles, traveling up north, experiencing racism first hand. “She got there and literally was sitting at a bar and someone called her a bald-head nigger bitch,” says VanTrece. “The people with her were white and were just as shocked as she was.”
VanTrece and her colleagues began opening up a dialogue surrounding diversity in the kitchen, mainly for women of color and other minorities. Since its start last year, the series has gone viral and countless women have reached out to VanTrece expressing thanks for being an inspiration.
“There’s just been a great amount of support from all over the country. These small voices way down south in Atlanta were able to start a movement,” she says. “We can stand up to anyone with our craft.”
Her resume continues to grow, appearing on countless TV shows including, most recently, Food Network’s “Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge.” Although a win wasn’t in the cards, she’s taken the experiences back into her kitchen to reinvent classic tastes.
Among her most loyal patrons are celebrities and Atlanta socialites, and an extensive list of star basketball and football players. One person though, if they ever walked through her front doors, would leave VanTrece speechless.
“Michelle Obama,” she says, grinning. “After I went into the kitchen and screamed, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ I’d come back and be really cool because that’s my nature, and I’d make sure nobody else bothered her.”
That’s the kind of pressure VanTrece thrives on. She incorporates her own philosophy into her craft for making every guest feel special. “I consider everyone who comes in here and spends money with me important,” she says. “They might not be a celebrity to the world, but the fact that you’re entrusting me with your dollars means I owe it to you to make it the best it can be.”
So what’s next for the soul foodstress? She admits she doesn’t want to be tied to one restaurant or even an opportunity like being the White House Chef. “I’d like the opportunity to cook on great scales, maybe do the Oscars,” VanTrece tells us.
But regardless the size of the occasion, she knows any success starts with a little bit of soul.