Chef Deborah VanTrece talks soul food, travel, and new restaurant

Photo courtesy of Deborah VanTrece
Photo courtesy of Deborah VanTrece

Chef Deborah VanTrece, the owner of Edible Art Café and Gourmet Catering, is renowned for her reinterpretation of Southern cuisine. Now the celebrated culinary artist has opened a new restaurant, Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, in Atlanta’s bustling West Midtown neighborhood.

“When I first went into the hospitality industry as a chef for a catering company, it did not take me long to realize that I could and should be running my own business. Becoming a chef was a mid-career move, so I already had experience in life and understood what I was looking for in terms of my job. After a few years working for others, I stepped out on my own and I haven’t looked back,” she says.

Read on to learn more about her journey.

Describe three highlights of your journey.
First, starting my own catering company back in the ’90s. I learned that I could be a leader, that I could run my own business, and that I could be successful as a chef. Second was opening Edible Art, my first restaurant. The process of opening was almost an afterthought — we wanted the space for a catering kitchen, but our landlord wanted us to serve food as a restaurant as well, so we kind of cobbled together Edible Art and started serving food on a daily basis. We ended up creating a little magic there — we got great reviews, were busy, helped get some attention on East Atlanta. That’s when I realized that my food had a message that resonated with people. Third, now opening Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in West Midtown. I love having my own restaurant, cooking my food, sharing my vision. … It’s an amazing, fun addition to our catering business and it gives me some creative freedom.

What inspires you?
I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot, and I’m inspired by the real cooking that people do all over the world. I think about my home and my childhood, growing up surrounded by great cooks, and I think about how people in other countries were raised in that same situation — but they ate completely different food. I cook my version of soul food that draws on those different versions of home-cooked meals from all around the world, whether it’s Vietnamese pho or Israeli couscous or barbecue ribs. I’m inspired by that global perspective and finding the comfort and soul in food that might not seem familiar.

What motivates you to come up with big ideas?
As a business owner, you’re always looking at the future. The worst trap is to get bogged down in that day-to-day grind; I’m always thinking about what’s next and how I can keep growing. A big part of that is just curiosity; I love learning about food trends, learning about other cultures, meeting new people. … If you keep an open mind, a lot of times the big ideas just show up.

Name three people in your industry that you consider great.
Charlie Trotter, Edna Lewis and Julia Child

How do you communicate your creative vision with people who hire you?
I think it’s a collaborative process. With the catering business, you have to get to know your clients and understand what they are trying to accomplish with an event. You discuss ideas, goals and all the logistics, but then it’s on us to add that extra twist that provides a wow factor.

How do you push your creative limits?
Learning as much as I can and experimenting in the kitchen. Traveling and trying new things. As a chef, you won’t find success unless you’re constantly pushing your creative limits, so I’m always trying new things. It would be weird if I didn’t push my creative limits; if you just cook the same thing over and over, you won’t be in business too long.

What are your two favorite films and what do you like about them?
Like Water for Chocolate is a foreign film that explores how emotions can be translated into the preparation of food. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a favorite of mine because of the cinematography, the colors and energy of the film … plus my favorite line “Off with their heads.”

What recognition or award would you like to receive?
There is really not an award that I want to receive. I am truly happy when my customers are pleased with their experience in the restaurant or with the catering company. This is reward enough for me.

Name two books that you would recommend to others. Why those books?
The Shack; what a wonderful perspective on how God loves. My second book is Charlie Trotter, The Cook’s Cookbook; he is a culinary genius.

Three favorite songs from your three favorite musicians?

Always Aretha Franklin, anything Prince, anything Mary J. Blige — she is such a fighter.

If you could collaborate with two creatives in any field, who would it be and why?

The artist Nick Cave, he is my best friend since college and I have watched him transform into an amazing visual artist. Pairing the two of us together would be amazing. Secondly, Brian Culbertson, the jazz artist, he is so passionate on stage and plays with every part of his being. I would love to create in the kitchen while he played in the background. I can’t imagine the explosiveness of the dish.

Finish the sentences:

Creativity begins … with learning. Nobody is born with the next new thing already inside their heads. You have to learn, get experience, see how things are done and imagine how you could do them better. If you’re not learning, if you’re not curious, you’re probably not creative.

The response to my craft is … snowballing. People have never been so interested in food and in restaurants, and it doesn’t seem like it’s stopping anytime soon. Now, people are so much more interested in black chefs, female chefs and people who cook with a perspective. My craft is growing, there are more opportunities than ever and I’m excited about the future.

My legacy will be … myself as a cultural explorer. I hope people will see me as the person who honored my own roots by sharing them with others, and who found similarities in other cultures and started new conversations with my food. I want to be that trailblazer that helped create opportunities for more diversity among my executive chef peers.

Munson Steed
Munson Steed

Founder and publisher of rolling out's parent company Steed Media Group.