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Chef Deborah VanTrece is known for her internationally influenced palate and ability to elevate global soul food. Now she's on the verge of opening not one but two of Atlanta's most-anticipated restaurants. The first is Oreatha's opening this month, which offer dishes drawing from comfort foods served by moms from around the world. The second, also planned for Atlanta’s historic Cascade Heights neighborhood later this year is Serenidad, which will have a menu inspired by the chefs her travels to Latin destinations across the globe.
The former model and flight attendant says her experience with travel led her to fall in love with many destinations and cultures, but if she had to choose a favorite, it would be Spain. “Its history is so rich, the architecture is mind blowing, and the people are warm and friendly. From the north to the south, the style of cooking varies but the concept of sharing and leisurely enjoying meals is consistent. I love hopping from place to place to enjoy small plates and culminating with a meal at a great restaurant.”
Although airplane food has long been the brunt of ridicule, VanTrece insists it doesn’t have to taste terrible. Her recommendation is to pack your own seasoning and condiments. “That’s one way that you can punch up airline food. Or, you can bring something simple to eat. You don’t have to bring an entire meal. You can bring some homemade snacks or small bites.”
VanTrece made a culinary splash at the Atlanta Olympics, when she catered for numerous international dignitaries. The lesbian chef later ran Edible Art, then opened Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in 2014. Co-owned with her wife, Lorraine Lane, Twisted Soul was named the best new restaurant in Atlanta by Georgia Voice.
Atlanta has influenced VanTrece's cooking
“I love my restaurant’s neighborhood in West Midtown Atlanta,” says VanTrece of the location Twisted Soul eventually moved to. “They have embraced me since we opened in 2017 and they supported us throughout the pandemic. It is a very progressive area, and the fabric of the neighborhood and its people is authentic and real. Atlanta has influenced my cooking to a certain degree because the soul of this city is like no other. It is an energy and a vibe that spurs my creativity because you have people who want to try new things and love to see twists on classics.”
VanTrece released her own take on those classics with Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors, which came out last year, and its positive reception was part of what led VanTrece to be named Chef of the Year at 2021’s third annual Wine Culture Fest in Atlanta.
Since lockdowns have forced travelers to find creative ways to experience the world, we asked VanTrece what she would serve to transport us. “Since my cooking style is global and modern, I could take you on a tour of the world without leaving the table via The Twisted Soul Cookbook. Start with Braised Chicken Wings Adobo, which is a national dish from the Philippines and Collard Green Dumplings with Red Wasabi Vinaigrette. For a main dish, I’d serve Fresh Salmon Croquettes with Spring Pea, Bacon, and Radish Salad or the Collard Green Cesar Salad. The Paella Macaroni…would also be a good dish. For dessert, Chocolate Buttermilk Pie (below), which has origins in the U.K. but is a popular pie in the South, or my Aunt Lucille’s 7-Up Poundcake, which is decadent and delicious.”
Chocolate Buttermilk Pie from Twisted Soul
Through her travels, VanTrece also came to recognize that many cultures share similar cooking elements, even if they are quite different in taste and ingredients. “Green sauces are just an example of similarities and differences that work hand-in-hand in global food culture. Each culture generally uses the sauce to enhance the flavor of an ingredient. Just think about the plethora of green sauces available. There’s chimichurri, pesto, salsa verde, chow chow, chermoula, Zhoug. The list of sauces spans the globe, and they are all equally delicious. Once you’re familiar with one, you can’t help but get excited about all the different possibilities.”
“If I led a culinary tour, today,” VanTrece muses, “It would be throughout Mexico. For a country that is so close to the United States, I think the food of Mexico as we know it has been watered down and Americanized. The true cuisine of Mexico encompasses so many flavors and classic techniques. I would love to lead a tour through the cities and towns of [Mexico].”
Although she says, “Every place I visit is motivated by food…I think New Orleans wins the award for best place to go on an eating binge. The food is so wonderfully seasoned and presented and showcases such incredible diversity.”
Now that’s comfort food.
This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine. The Spring 2022 issue is now available on newsstands.