The other day, Chef Deborah VanTrece made neck bones.
“My mom and dad would make neck bones and potatoes with cucumbers, tomatoes and raw onions. So I thought, what could I do to make this dish beautiful? I cooked the neck bones traditionally, but then I bought tri-colored petite potatoes, and I had teeny weeny carrots, so skinny they looked like needles. And instead of just cucumber I had a chutney of onions, cucumber and tomatoes to go on top. I took the broth and made nice sauce. Fusing and twisting it all together opens up your mind. The tastes are familiar – I don’t necessarily change a lot of the basic recipes – but I am going to change the look of it. With soul food, our food can look pretty.”
With constant vacillating between innovation and the familiar, the concept of a signature dish, then, is fleeting.
“My favorite dish is the one I didn’t do today. I’m always trying to figure out what else can I do. I’m always on the search for more. What’s next?”
VanTrece is widely known for her gourmet catering company, Edible Art Cafe, which she started in the late ’90s and was at the time an innovative preparation and presentation of soul food. When she opened Twisted Soul Kitchen and Bar in Decatur in 2015, she had the opportunity to expand on her culinary concepts. Her concept of soul food is more than being from the south. She has traveled internationally and had the opportunity to cook and learn from local cooks and chefs. “My soul food is about the ‘soul’ that is put into food no matter what part of the world you come from.”
It’s food as fellowship.
“It is something we all do. No matter where you are in the world, you eat. Food brings people together and for the most part it brings people together in a positive experience. I’ve learned what’s familiar to other people and what brings them back to family. It’s not just about putting a twist on a traditional African-American dish, it’s putting a twist on a traditional dish that a family would eat anywhere in the world … comfort food. There’s not too much I do that is not invoking some memory or stories.”
Her second consideration, like with the neck bones: How can she make her creations beautiful? “What would be just a little different but the same? Let’s not use rice let’s use risotto. Or, let’s use orzo pasta. What I do … it’s not for everybody. I like diners who are open minded to the experience. The reason it wasn’t accepted years and years ago is because we weren’t taking the time to explore just a little bit more. Culinary artists are doing that now.”
And now there is social media with food critics, bloggers, Yelp and Food Network to help evangelize along the way. “Now all of a sudden, food is huge and it’s like another Hollywood – it’s Foodiewood. Even to be a part of the game you have to change the game plan. It’s not just about how creative you are and how well you cook. It’s now about the personality behind it, you have to be known. There’s a lot more to it now, so you can’t just focus on cooking.”
A delicious byproduct: Soul food is taking its rightful place in foodways history.
“As an African-American chef, there are times I felt slighted that the southern food that I’m seeing get all the accolades and recognition is really the soul food that my grandmother was cooking for me. Now we are getting to a place where southern isn’t as hot and soul food is coming into its own. It has been incredible to see even though it has taken a while. We‘re going back to African-American chefs who have already written the bible on soul food. Now, it really belongs to African Americans.”