April 15, 2021

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Is Food In You

Chef Deborah VanTrece Is Showing Us Soul Food’s Global Range

5 min read

It’s been a busy couple of months for Deborah VanTrece, who’s known for her modern approach to soul food at her restaurant Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours. Earlier this year, the Atlanta chef transitioned into a new creative director role for her restaurant all while working on her debut cookbook. Soul food is a cuisine that Black migrants took outside of the South during the Great Migration.

Her experiences as a former flight attendant allowed her to see how different ingredients were incorporated into dishes worldwide that later inspired her recipes as a chef. In The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors, readers are the ones taking a trip around the globe while exploring the ways in which soul food appears on the plate. And while still keeping the essence of the traditional cuisine at the forefront, VanTrece provides unique twists on classic dishes like smothered chicken gizzard poutine and creamy red bean risotto. 

In a recent call with VanTrece, we talked about the inspiration behind her cookbook, the global reach of soul food, and Black women’s role in American cuisine. 

Thrillist: What made you want to write a cookbook?

Deborah VanTrece: I think everybody’s culinary experiences are a little bit different. I definitely put myself in the category of having a different culinary experience, and I thought it was worthwhile to share it. There’s cookbooks about soul food, but really not from a global perspective.

I thought it was a chance to— through food—showcase all of the similarities that we throughout the world; we as people have when it comes to our cuisine, and some of my thoughts behind it. That’s the motivation behind doing the cookbook and wanting to just share a part of me with the world. 

When people hear “soul food” they often think of the South, but many of your recipes are influenced by cuisines from all over the world. How did you decide what cuisines to base these recipes on?

You know, usually the recipes are things that reminded me of my own family or traditional soul food, or a traditional soul food ingredient. From traveling throughout the world, that commonality of ingredients was something that honestly, prior to traveling, I didn’t really think of.

I thought soul food that I grew up with, I kind of put it in a box in that it was African-American cuisine, and that was kind of it. It wasn’t really shared by other people unless they were actually coming to a place that said “soul food.”

With my travels, I realized that some of these ingredients were way broader than what they’ve been given credit for. The food that was traditional soul food wasn’t being given a lot of respect, even though these ingredients in other parts of the world were given respect in their particular culture.

Trying to fuse all of that together is really where I came up with recipes. It’s kind of how I cook now. I cook with all of the knowledge that I’ve gotten through traveling and food, and the recipes reflect all of that, what I grew up with, what I’ve seen in travels and things that come with a memory or a story. 

In the opening intro of the cookbook, you talk about what and who inspired your cooking, like Leah Chase, Edna Lewis and Princess Pamela. There’s been a lot of attention on Black women trailblazers. Why do you think it’s so important for Black women from the past and present in the food industry to be included in the conversation?

I think it’s important because we’ve been left out of that conversation for so long and it really doesn’t… it’s never set well with me. You know, historically in this country, Black women were the ones that were in the kitchen. They were slaves, they were preparing food for their masters, their master’s family, and figuring out how to use new ingredients, as well as bring in some of their techniques and their flavors from Africa with them, and producing these incredible meals.

It’s amazing to me that Black women have not been considered in the forefront of American cuisine all along because it’s kind of indisputable that many, many of the culinary things of the South, many of the dishes, they are dishes that are directly affiliated with Black women.

What would you like to see for Black culinarians in the next five years in terms of being in the spotlight and being included—not just an afterthought?

I want to see them in the spotlight. I want to see them included as not just an afterthought. There are so many women, so many African-American cooks that should be chefs, and I want them to get the attention that they deserve. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s taken me years to get to where I’m at, where with my male white counterparts, it does not take them that long at all.

I’m pushing to help mentor the younger chefs that are trying to come up and help them anyway I can possibly help them. It has to become not an afterthought, but just second nature that restaurants are picked or chefs are picked on the merit of their food, on the merit of their customer service, and not because of the color of their skin.

The premier chefs don’t always look alike. They’re not always white dudes bearded with tattoos. It gets real old, real quick, and we have so much we can learn about each other’s root food, that the diversity of our cuisine has got to be recognized if we’re trying to be the nation that we claim that we are. 

What do you want readers to take away from your cookbook?

I want you to have a smile on your face, for one. I want you to understand that our cuisine is evolving. All across the world, cuisine is evolving, and so is soul food. The most important thing to me about soul food is that foundation and the memories. The fellowship, the positive energy that you get with the stories that are being told about your memories of food and who produced it, and the dinner that all the family came to and what a great time [it was]. The celebration of a new member of the family, all of that.

I want you to think about it and then start making traditions of your own and use food in those traditions. It’s important that our ancestors did this for us and our children in the future. They have this foundation to hold onto and make their own traditions and have good stories.

Thanks for speaking with me.

“The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors” will be released on March 16 and is available for pre-order now

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