“It was strange to me that we spent days on different cultures, and spent such a small amount on soul food. And there was no one there qualified to teach it. For me, that was kind of an awakening. The question was, ‘What’s wrong with our food?’ ‘What’s wrong with the food I grew up with?’”
In “The Twisted Soul Cookbook,” VanTrece writes about a series of eureka moments, when she “became determined to give soul food a higher profile in her cooking and catering.”
Studying Charlie Trotter’s cookbooks, she made the connection between soul food and Southern food, and the food her grandmother and great-grandmother were cooking.
“I was seeing food that I grew up with that he had taken and elevated into these beautiful fine dining dishes, with all kinds of colors, and different ingredients,” she recalled. “That was something that really spoke to me.
“No one was taking the soul food that I grew up with and figuring out ways to present it, where it became what I called art on the plate. And that’s what I decided I wanted to do.”
VanTrece found inspiration in women such as Edna Lewis and Leah Chase, and other chefs who honored African American food with their recipes.
“They were utilizing fresh products, and the best things, and they understood seasonal vegetables, and what to do with them,” she said. “So the knowledge was there all the time, not just in professional chefs, like an Edna Lewis, but all of the black women who were in white women’s kitchens preparing the meals for their families.”
For a time, VanTrece wondered if she had a cookbook in her, but finally decided there were plenty of stories to tell, and recipes to share.
“In the broader term, soul food goes across all cultures, and we all have something that touches our soul, and some food that touches our soul,” she said.
Ultimately, VanTrece said she “wanted to touch people’s hearts” with her cookbook. “I wanted to elevate the soul food I grew up with, and marry it with all of the travel, and all of the history, and all of the stories,” she said.
Recently, VanTrece took on a new role as creative director at Twisted Soul, while promoting chef de cuisine Robert Butts to executive chef. With that move, she’s able to take on a bigger role as a mentor, working with several organizations and companies to advocate for minorities in the restaurant business.
“Turning over the kitchen, that was a big deal for me,” she admitted. “But it brought me a lot of pleasure. I didn’t have a mentor. I had my family, and their common sense, more than anything. I figured it out as best I could. I screwed it up a few times. And I want to keep others from screwing it up as bad as I did.
“Because I have been vocal and outspoken about the inequities in the industry, I want to continue to be a bit of an activist, and be a huge mentor to those who need it. That will be the role that I’ll take on a little bit more now — to push the agenda of more women, and more African Americans and people of color, and more restaurants that are owned by people who look like me.”
These recipes from “The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food With Global Flavors” by Deborah VanTrece (Rizzoli New York, $35) offer a glimpse into her personal mix of traditional and internationally inspired flavors.
Fresh Salmon Croquettes With Spring Pea, Bacon, and Radish Salad
“My inspiration for this dish is my enduring love for Latin culture and food, specifically Spanish croquetas,” VanTrece says in “The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food With Global Flavors.” “Although similar in preparation, they taste entirely different from the salmon croquettes that my grandma made from canned salmon. Of course, the freshness of ingredients is the difference.”
In addition, VanTrece notes that the croquettes can be made smaller and served as hors d’oeuvres.
Spring Pea, Bacon, and Radish Salad
“This is a pretty spring salad,” VanTrece says in her new cookbook. “Fresh mint brightens all of the flavors with its spicy-sweet fragrance. Watermelon radishes are my radish of choice for this recipe; they are peppery with a hint of sweetness and add great balance.”
“This dressing is so universally loved, it doesn’t need an explanation,” VanTrece says in “The Twisted Soul Cookbook.” “The extra herbs just add a notch to the flavor factor. It’s not only great for salads, you can use it atop salmon, fried green tomatoes, or as a dip for chicken wings.”
Aunt Lucille’s 7UP Pound Cake
“This is a pound cake, and the only cake I can ever remember my Aunt Lucille ever making,” VanTrece says in her first cookbook, “The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food With Global Flavors.” “For me, it will always carry cherished memories of celebrations and good times. This is the kind of recipe that reminds you how good old-fashioned cakes were (and can be). Definitely use 7UP for this recipe because it has a high level of carbonation that helps the cake to rise, and gives it a brighter, fresher lemon-lime flavor than other sodas.”
Note: For best results, VanTrece swears by Baker’s Joy No-Stick Baking Spray with Flour and recommends a smoother Bundt pan for less chance of sticking.
Recipes excerpted from “The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food With Global Flavors,” © 2021 by Deborah VanTrece. Reproduced by permission of Rizzoli New York. All rights reserved.
Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.