Chef Deborah VanTrece Shares Her Unique Approach To Elevating Classic Comfort Foods And Southern Cuisines


Soul food and southern cooking collide with global cuisines in “The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food With Global Flavors” by chef Deborah VanTrece. The book, named after VanTrece’s Atlanta restaurant, presents “comfort food” recipes, recipes VanTrece calls “necessities,” and recipes based on “castoffs,” i.e. bones, turkey necks, and other typically low-cost or repurposed ingredients. But VanTrece’s unique approach brings international influences to the already diverse array of American soul food traditions, getting creative with a style of cooking full of both crowd-pleasing and surprising flavors. The chef joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about the new cookbook and her particular philosophy of eating, honoring, and evolving soul food.

Honoring American food traditions while thinking outside the box:

“People have the idea, or have had the idea, that soul food is just like a bubble; it’s one thing. And it’s not. It’s definitely influenced by the region. African-Americans came here and they were placed in the South, for the most part, but as the world, the country evolved, they started migrating up into Northern states… and so did the cuisines of those places,” said VanTrece. “Soul food is not just one type of food… A lot of that depends upon where, actually, you live.”

“Soul food that I grew up with, it was wholesome, it was delicious,” said VanTrece. “As food and food systems have changed, so have some of my ideas and my concepts. The basic food that I was given is absolutely delicious, but I think that we have an obligation to experiment with it – know where it comes from, know that your grandfather made this amazing gumbo, and he added this, this, and that – but also open up your eyes to all those things that are available to you now, that he may not have had access to.”

Paté, aspic, and other niche foods reexamined:

“When you really sit and put it together, [paté] is really a fancy meatloaf, if you think about it. And the ingredients that you put in a paté are really some kind of castoff and throwaway ingredients, combined with fresh herbs and great flavor, and with a cute name,” said VanTrece.

“We did a hog head cheese, which is something that now I’m kind of focused on a little bit because I find it funny that there’s discussion on aspic, the idea of aspic dishes coming back. And I laughed to myself and thought, ‘They never left,’” said VanTrece. “Hog head cheese is considered, really, some trash, some pretty country cooking here in the United States. But you go to Germany, you go to France, and it definitely is a delicacy.”

“There are some things that continue to be extremely expensive – our caviar, our truffles – but I spent some time in Russia at one point, and they would trade some caviar for a pair of Levi jeans in a heartbeat, it’s so common there… Take a step back and understand, good food is good food, no matter where you’re at, no matter what name you give to it.”

On expanding our soul food imaginations:

“It’s really a type of cuisine that touches your heart, that touches your soul. And I think every culture, deep down, has that. Every person has it. I don’t care if it’s a hot dog,” said VanTrece. “There’s something that you had as a kid – it could be a peanut butter sandwich, it could be Grandma’s tuna noodle casserole – but it made you feel good. And as an adult, you will always connect that food, that dish, with home.”

“We don’t stay stagnant. We continue as people to evolve, and that’s all people. So it just makes sense that our food evolves, also. We’re not living in ancient times, there’s things that even take place that weren’t as prevalent as before. We do have mixed culture marriages, and same-sex marriages, and within that, our families are becoming so diverse within themselves – so is our food.”