Story by Henri Hollis. Photos by Jenni Girtman.
“Every culture has its own version of soul food.” Chef Deborah VanTrece learned this lesson first-hand in her global travels and made it part of her own cooking philosophy. VanTrece says she believes that soul food, wherever it’s from, is really about welcoming visitors to the table.
VanTrece is the chef and owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, as well as the catering company Catering by VanTrece. By her own admission, her current role counts as the fifth or sixth act in a career that includes being a model, a student, a flight attendant and, increasingly, a vocal advocate for social justice.
During her years working as a flight attendant in the late 1980s and early 1990s, VanTrece learned to appreciate many flavors after tasting them in their lands of origin.
“I just loved visiting markets in these new places and buying ingredients I hadn’t ever used before,” VanTrece says. “Then, when you get the opportunity to be invited into someone’s home, and you see the way they cook … that’s their kind of soul food.”
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The menu at Twisted Soul reflects her global approach. She cooks oxtails, a soul food staple, until meltingly tender, then glazes them with sweet and savory hoisin sauce from China. She folds humble creamed corn into Italian risotto. She bundles ingredients from at least three different continents into the BBQ duck spring rolls served with a bourbon maple ponzu sauce.
VanTrece extends her ethos of open-mindedness and inclusion beyond the kitchen. As a lesbian, African-American chef and business owner, VanTrece has been increasingly asked to comment on multiple issues since she opened Twisted Soul in West Midtown in early 2017. She speaks candidly on such topics as female restaurateurs, gay rights, racial inequality and how her intersectionality affected her entrepreneurship. (Full disclosure: Before becoming a freelance writer, I did some public relations work for VanTrece in 2015.)
VanTrece has learned to embrace the attention, though she doesn’t allow it to distract her from running a restaurant.
“It does feel like a responsibility, and it’s one I take seriously,” she says. “For all those groups, I have known that those issues existed because I’m a part of them. But getting the strength to have the voice was the first step. It took me a long time to become fearless, and to be honest, I’m still scared. I’m scared like everybody else — scared of what’s next, scared of the responsibility. … But it’s something I accept. It’s the responsibility of the blessing.”
VanTrece hopes to use the platform she’s built to turn media attention to an issue that she deeply cares about: the Farm Bill, and specifically, SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Through SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, low- and no-income people receive federal aid in purchasing food through special debit cards known as EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer). In 2016, more than 44 million Americans received food assistance through SNAP.
Now the program enters uncertain waters as the Farm Bill is debated and repeatedly rewritten in Congress, with a proposal to replace EBT cards with pre-packaged food and dry goods. VanTrece believes that such a solution would be a setback for program recipients.
“We’ve evolved to the point where you can take your food stamps, go to a farmers market and get double the value and buy fresh veggies, and we’re going to take that away?” she says. “That’s going to affect the most vulnerable people: children, the low-income elderly, veterans.”
She believes that the keys to better food security and healthier eating habits among low-income populations are education and awareness. To that end, VanTrece and her team participate in a wide range of events. Over the summer, Twisted Soul hosted a Juneteenth event to benefit No Kid Hungry, a national organization that fights childhood hunger. In the fall, she co-hosted an event about the intersection of soul food and spirituality with Rose Scott of WABE, an Atlanta NPR station.
Additionally, VanTrece has invited students in high school culinary classes and vocational work placement programs to visit her kitchen. In the future, VanTrece would like to create a community panel series to educate the public about healthy eating habits and how to make the most of EBT cards. She also plans to open more restaurants, rooting herself deeper in the Atlanta community.
As always, she’ll make food that pays homage to the places she’s been and the people who expanded her culinary horizons. Whether she’s the student or the teacher, VanTrece believes that keeping an open mind is the way to inspire productive dialogue.
“If you’re not paying attention, there are things happening that you care about but won’t get the chance to have an opinion on,” she says. “And what we eat, that’s a huge one.”
Twisted Soul. 1133 Huff Road. 404-350-5500. twistedsoulcookhouseandpours.com
The bologna mousse at Twisted Soul, which VanTrece has prepared for traveling events, is a favorite dish among local chefs.