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How Chef Deborah VanTrece Honors the History of Soul Food at Her Atlanta Restaurant

The chef feels her power as a southern, Black, queer person through her dishes

“The biggest misconception about soul food is that it is unhealthy, not good for you, and that it’s garbage, that it’s trash. It’s just not true,” says chef Deborah VanTrece, as she de-stems and washes an enormous pile of collard greens. These greens are destined for a tortellini dish with a soul food spin. It’s this combination of the traditions and ingredients used by Black chefs in the South and the global cuisine that VanTrece and her Atlanta restaurant Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours are known for.

In almost every dish touched by VanTrece, a rich history comes to life. “Offal cuts, in my opinion, they represent survival,” she explains as she cleans pork chitterlings, or “chitlins,” as they’re more commonly known. “They were cast-offs, thrown away. But the less fortunate, [the] slaves, that was all they had to survive, and they were so creative in taking an intestine and cleaning it, and adding spices, herbs, and veggies to it.” She considers this laborious cleaning process a rite of passage. “That is the thing about soul food. People think it’s very simple and easy, but the techniques have been handed down through generations.” She boils the chitterlings in a vegetable broth, and serves with chimichurri and a dusting of cayenne pepper and paprika.

VanTrece pivots to focusing on her daughter, Kay, the general manager of the restaurant. “She refuses to eat chitlins,” she laughs, but goes on to say she still knows why they’re important to Black culture and the traditions of soul food. “Respect the technique and respect what went into it. Don’t allow other people to put it in your head that what you grew up with and what you ate is nothing,” she says.

The interplay between value and identity are two subjects with which the chef is deeply familiar, both as a soul food chef and a queer person. She says, “It was very hard to come out to my daughter. She was young, and the idea of her having to bear the responsibility of my decisions was so scary for me.” But VanTrece’s daughter supported her, and their bond is stronger than ever.

“Being queer, it has empowered me,” VanTrece concludes. “It has shut out the naysayers. No matter what, I can shut them out, and stay true to who I am, and keep going.”

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