How Chef Debra VanTrece transcends multiple boundaries
“I was a bit of an introvert—which comes as a complete surprise to those who know me now,” says Chef Debra VanTrece. That fact may be rather unexpected for those who have seen her lively appearances on various TV programs. It was, however, not the only transformation she had gone through in her life.
Born and raised in Kansas City, she worked as a model and a flight attendant. Eventually, she became a culinary student at Atlanta’s Art Institute, graduated as a valedictorian, and settled in the city.
There, she started working as an executive chef for a catering company. During the 1996 Olympics, she cooked for the VIPs and opened her first restaurant, Edible Art. Since then, she has started more ventures, including Twisted Soul, The Catering Company by VanTrece, Oreatha’s, and Serenidad—all as parts of the VanTrece Hospitality Group that she founded. She has also published The Twisted Soul Cookbook and was showcased at the James Beard House, among other honors.
Since she was young, her family could create magic on the dinner table from paltry ingredients. The biggest feast was on Thanksgiving, when all her family gathered and shared their best dishes. That tradition continued even when she grew up and moved away from home, as she would spend hours on the phone with her mother to discuss their menus and recipes.
Fast forward to current times, Chef VanTrece is still working on menus and recipes—only now they are in the context of a restaurant group. For her, it is an exercise to balance her sensibility and creativity. She follows some basic rules, such as seasonality, ingredient combination, pricing, and needs of various diets such as vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, gluten-free, and others for an inclusive menu. After that, “comes the time for fun. This is when I really get to utilize all my knowledge from living, traveling, and reading to create something a little different but still familiar,” she says. “This is how I put a little of myself and my story in each dish.”
Having been trained in classical French cooking techniques, she could have focused on any cuisine. However, she decided to focus on the dishes at the heart of her upbringing. As she traveled to different places, she also realized that the soul of a country is defined by the soul of its cuisine. With that in mind, she wants to celebrate the food that tells those age-old stories.
“I understand my version of soul food was often going against tradition, but I believe traditions were meant to be used as a foundation to build on. And as we evolve, so should our traditions.”
In the beginning, she received strong push-back and faced lots of obstacles, from the assumption that soul food was all that she could do to the idea that soul food or comfort food were simply unimpressive, not to mention the false narrative that soul food was deadly to one’s health. The negative sentiments surrounding comfort cuisine were irrational. In her opinion, it is more challenging technically to make less-heralded ingredients—like hog intestines—taste as good as expensive ones.
She takes pride in being innovative and creative with products that some consider castoffs. Nowadays, with the sustainability movement, more people are jumping onto the bandwagon. At the same time, more chefs are experimenting with soul foods of different cultures and accepting the diversity of good food in general.
Being a Black female chef and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, her experience in the kitchen was a unique one.
“Quite frankly, when I started this journey, I was simply a Black woman, not a lesbian Black woman,” she says. “I found out that my male counterparts were more concerned with what was between my legs instead of my culinary acumen.”
It was a daily reality for her to deal with rampant sexual innuendos, inappropriate comments, and name-calling. As a Black woman, she was passed up for promotions, talked-down to, and ridiculed for wanting to do “that kind of food.” Once she came out as a lesbian, in addition to losing customers, she was also subject to harassment that came in the form of gossip about her personal choice.
She was constantly told that she did not look like a lesbian. “I’m still trying to figure out what a lesbian is supposed to look like and how that plays into my ability to cook,” she says. “I can’t say that these experiences changed my view of the kitchen because I’ve never seen it from any other space… I can only share the perspective from my eyes.”
In addition to dealing with the toxic environment in the kitchen, it is also difficult for minorities to access capital. It has always been and continues to be a problem. She does not believe that there is any easy fix. Though it could start with not just listening but truly hearing the cries for equitable opportunities within the system; and asking what we can do to make things better. To Chef VanTrece, marginalized communities are called that for a reason, and it is our responsibility to help find solutions to these real-life issues.
There need to be better resources and platforms for true engagement with financiers. Minorities themselves must take the initiative to learn how to establish relationships with banks and know when to cut ties if the relationships are no longer mutually-beneficial. She does think improvements are being made by many organizations to remove barriers, to educate, and to mentor. And even though things are moving in the right direction, there are still long ways to go.
Despite all the obstacles—with neither a roadmap showing her the way nor counselors steering her in the right direction—she does feel she has accomplished a lot. For that reason, she is committed to providing mentorship and helping the next generation.
As far as her business empire goes, the next step is to expand outside of the Atlanta area. The exact locations are yet to be decided, but the process has already begun. In addition, another cookbook is in the making.
When asked about her favorite cuisine, she says she simply loves good food and does not have a strong preference. However, when she feels down, her go-to is always the traditional African American soul food. “Like my mother would make,” she says.
TROORA MAGAZINE | DECEMBER 2021
WRITTEN BY CARY WONG
PHOTOS COURTESY OF REBECCA T BOCKMAN | MIA YAKEL | JOSH SWINNEY