We’re celebrating Pride month by spotlighting LGBTQ+ chefs, cookbook authors, and businesses. Here, gifted and magnetic Chef Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours talks about owning a restaurant with her wife, Lorraine; how her food has evolved; what she wants to see change in the Atlanta restaurant scene; and more.
As intimidating as her extensive list of accolades are, from major television appearances to features in leading national publications, landing on several best-of lists and being a guest chef at multiple James Beard Foundation events, Chef VanTrece is refreshingly warm, genuine, and forthcoming.
She opened her restaurant, Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, initially in 2014, moving to its current location in Atlanta’s West Midtown in 2016. There, she pulls from her years of travel to craft her takes on soul food from different parts of the world. She uses this idea of creating community by bringing different cultures together as a way to get through the tough times, as well.
Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, she converted her temporarily closed restaurant into a to-go pop-up, offering a menu of fried chicken and Southern sides with special weekly fish fries at an affordable price for her diverse clientele impacted by the crisis. In the surge of recent tragedies and injustices, she’s welcomed and encouraged open conversations and action surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests among her staff, friends, and community.
How did you meet your wife, Lorraine?
We met on Match.com. When we first got together, we had dinner on a blind date and we got along really, really well. I think she was moving from Little Rock to Alabama and I was here in Atlanta. We would commute back and forth when we were dating and not too long after, she decided she wanted to marry me, and a little bit after that I decided I might say yes. So we got married. We got married the first time before it was legal and then we got married again when it became legal.
Was going into the restaurant business together a passion that you both shared? Does she have a food background as well? How did that come about?
She has zero food background. She just enjoys eating. She enjoys eating my food. While we were dating, I was doing catering pretty much non-stop. So it was quickly that she kind of got involved. If you’re going to date me, you’re going to end up carrying a chafer, you’re going to be carrying a cambro and we’re going to hurry up and head out the door and set up this party.
So she kind of got a quick lesson while she was dating me. She knew that this was my passion and she supported it 100 percent. I got to the point that I was too busy and too big to be catering out of a church kitchen and it was becoming difficult. And I told her ‘I think I want to open a restaurant’ and she was fully supportive of it.
What is Lorraine’s role at Twisted Soul?
[Laughing]She tells me when I can’t spend money. She keeps track of our finances and our budgeting. She started out as our Bar Manager, and doing all the cocktails. As my daughter [Kursten] who is also part of the business started getting more and more involved, we quickly found out that my daughter had become quite a bit better than Lorraine was. Lorraine was really good, but my daughter is absolutely incredible and just had a natural knack for being a beverage chef. So we turned that over to her, and so Lorraine pretty much handles the finances, and the booking of me and my events. She helps me with my scheduling and keeps me on point so I’m not pulled 50 million places at one time.
Everyone has had to adapt and change the way we’re living and operating during the pandemic, especially the restaurant industry. You temporarily closed Twisted Soul and started doing your A Different Kind of Chick pop up. How did you come to the decision to start that and how’s it been going?
We started A Different Kind of Chick a little over a month [ago] now. We did several different things before we settled on that. A Different Kind of Chick was something that originally we thought would be our business model for opening a restaurant. So it was a business plan that had been sitting, that had dust on it, that we thought, well one day we’ll revisit this. It was a model for carry-out. And we thought this is not necessarily where we’re at. It’s not the perfect location that we had in mind for that type of business, but the circumstances made us have to rearrange some things a little bit outside the box and adjust and make it work and so that’s what we determined we should do.
We’ve done really, really well with it. We’ve got limited hours and it’s worked out really well. We have delivery. It’s picking up more and more momentum and we’re hoping to take this concept and transfer it to another location at some point down the road. It was kind of cool to see it in action and see ‘okay look, this is an experiment we had to do but it’s actually working.’ We know now that what we thought would work will work, we know what menu items are the most popular, so I think it is a great concept to continue with down the road.
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You were a flight attendant for a while and you’ve done a lot of traveling which has inspired the Twisted Soul concept of global comfort food. What were some of the regions and particular dishes that you first fell in love with?
I spent a lot of time in Spain. I actually took a leave of absence for six months and stayed there. I was able to immerse myself into the culture, probably there moreso than a lot of the other places that I got a chance to go to. So, one dish that always stands out for me and I visit it on my menu quite a bit was paella done with macaroni. It was something that was given to me at someone’s home one day when I just happened to drop in. It stood out for me because I had never heard of it with macaroni, I’ve never seen it with macaroni.
I would say overall, probably the food of Spain. The tortillas I thought were absolutely amazing—I mean who thought potatoes and eggs could be so good? And the purity of great olive oil and great salt and even sardines.
The French cuisine is amazing, also. I had duck confit—I was in France in someone’s home and I never tried duck before but I couldn’t be rude, so that forced me to eat it. It was absolutely amazing. That’s something that I play with quite a bit, too. I’ll duck confit 50 million ways if you just give me half a chance.
So it’s every place that I’ve been. I’ve taken something from those places, and even if I haven’t been, if I’ve met someone who’s from there and they speak to me about dishes they grew up with, I find myself researching them and if they’re interesting, learning how I can incorporate them into the food that I do.
The Atlanta food scene has grown and evolved and changed a lot over the years. From your perspective, what are some of the biggest ways the Atlanta food scene has changed and what are you excited about seeing more of in the future?
I’ve been doing this since 1994, so I’ve seen major changes that have happened in the food world here. It just started taking off little by little. I look back now over that span of all those years and realize that in every nook and cranny in every neighborhood, there is a very worthy restaurant that’s in the midst of it, be it big or small. I think it’s great that independent restaurants are coming up as much as they have over the years.
For a while, the Buckhead Life Group was the only restaurant group you knew. Now there’s a million groups and they’re started with young people with fresh ideas and they’re stepping out of the box a lot more and experimenting with all types of food. I think the scene has become very diverse in its cuisine and it’s the backbone of the city and many of its neighborhoods and I think that is absolutely wonderful.
What I would like to see is more African American-owned restaurants in the city and see them flourish all over the city. [I would like to see] some more African American chefs; there are some amazing chefs. I’ve seen their work, I know what they do. And trying to get them a start has been very difficult. So I would like to see more opportunities for the chefs to get their names out there and to be able to open their own small restaurants or big ones if that’s what they want; more diversity in ownership and not just in cuisine itself.
There have been a lot of protests over the past couple weeks in response to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more. How have you or Twisted Soul as an organization participated in the efforts?
I have people, people who work here who have gone and protested. I think that it is kind of hard not to be active when it is about you, because it is about all of us. I think the mere fact that we live this every day is participating. We’ve been very vocal before all this has been happening. We’ve been extremely vocal about where we thought injustices were. It wasn’t because it was trending or because it was popular to do and we continue to do so.
Even when COVID started, one of our first things to do was to feed our community, bring our prices down and make sure people could eat and see where we could help with that. We’ve done a little bit of fundraising with different organizations. The only thing I haven’t done is picked up a sign and gone and picketed and protested, and that’s only because if they start spraying the rubber bullets and tear gas I’m afraid I can’t run that fast. So I don’t want to put myself in harm’s way but I have completely supported my people, my staff.
Also we have tons of conversations among ourselves about what’s going on and I’m seeing how much that is needed even with actual friends of mine. [Twisted Soul] is a safe place to come and sit at a table and we can gather and share our thoughts and our feelings because there’s a lot going on and these are things that we have felt for so many years and it feels good now to talk about it more and verbalize it and not feel like you’ve got to package it in a nice package with a bow on it for fear of offending someone, or losing yourself or losing your job or losing your position. It’s something we’ve been doing always, every day because we were living it.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Header image courtesy of Joann Vitelli