Meet Chef Deborah VanTrece: The Black Woman Curating Cuisine For The World’s Largest Centurion Lounge

Courtesy of Chef Deborah VanTrece

The busiest airport in the world is now home to American Express’ largest Centurion Lounge. At nearly 26,000 square feet, it is the largest lounge in the network, and features a locally-inspired menu from Atlanta-based Chef Deborah VanTrece.

As one of the South’s most recognized culinary personalities, the collaboration between VanTrece and AMEX was a match made in heaven. “There were a lot of things that came into mind knowing that it was the biggest lounge,” she tells ESSENCE. “Realizing that this is a world stage, that was something that I knew I had to take into consideration. What I have spent my career creating is globally inspired food and soul food. Immediately felt that was where I would draw a connection.”

Meet Chef Deborah VanTrece: The Black Woman Curating Cuisine For The World’s Largest Centurion Lounge
Courtesy of American Express

Drawing from her experiences as a former flight attendant, along with her own family traditions, Chef VanTrece crafted a custom menu that includes dishes such as Black Eyed Pea Biryani, Za’atar Grilled Chicken Thighs with Green Tomato Chimichurri, Twisted Soul Salad with Strawberry Peppercorn Vinaigrette, and more. There will also be a food and beverage station with gluten free and vegan options, including protein bites, salads, smoothies, and immunity booster juice shots.

With this new Centurion Lounge, VanTrece aims to give travelers on the global scale a taste of Georgia’s capital. “It’s not just a part of my story, it’s a part of Atlanta’s food scene to me,” the award-winning culinary expert says. “If you visit our restaurants here, the best restaurants, you’re going to find a lot of spins and twists from different cultures using southern ingredients. It’s something that I have spent my entire career doing and I thought just stay true to who you are and do what you do.”

Meet Chef Deborah VanTrece: The Black Woman Curating Cuisine For The World’s Largest Centurion Lounge
Courtesy of American Express

In addition to the Chef’s carefully crafted food selections, Hartsfield-Jackson’s Centurion Lounge boasts the network’s first whiskey bar. The cocktail menu, curated by award-winning mixologist Jim Meehan, features five specialty whiskey cocktails, and over 20 classic and new American whiskeys. The lounge also features a fully stocked main bar with 10 wines hand-selected by sommelier and Centurion Lounge Wine Director Anthony Giglio, a local cocktail menu including spirit free options, and signature drinks.

At nearly 26,000 square feet, the lounge showcases commissioned artwork from local artists, a 50-year-old olive tree and a 3,850 square foot custom light sculpture that represents a forest canopy, creating a relaxing space for Card Members to unwind before their flights. With this amazing aesthetic and an unrivaled menu, the Centurion Lounge is posed to become a mainstay in Atlanta for years to come.

ESSENCE: Chef Deborah, how did you originally connect with AMEX to curate the food choices for this Centurion Lounge?

Chef Deborah: Believe it or not, I got a random email and I get random emails all the time. So you look and you’re  like, “Hmm, is this real? I’m not sure. Pass it to my family.” We all take a look and say “what do you think?” And think it probably just got backed up. At one point, another one came. So we looked at it a little bit more seriously and said, “Okay, let’s reach out and see what’s going on.” So I talked to a gentleman, Joe, I think out of New York. And he told me about the lounge and said, “We’re interested in you doing the menu, curating the menu for this.” I was a little bit familiar with that because Greg Collier in Charlotte is a friend of mine and a year or two ago I said, “Okay, this is really cool. Greg’s doing this. This is amazing” And that was kind of the end of it for me.

So it was out of the blue that they contacted me and I was definitely interested, but I was still being very cautious, being cautious. It was a big deal. And also looking at American Express, I considered them a big deal. I’ve worked with Resy, that’s who we use for our reservation systems for all my restaurants. But looking at my brand going somewhere else, that was something that took a little bit of thought for me. So it took them a minute to talk to me, convince me, make me feel as if you really want to do my food, you really want to tell my story. And once I felt comfortable with that, I was all on board.

What was your process when you were developing the menu for this specific lounge?

I came and I saw the lounge actually before I even agreed to do this. It was absolutely beautiful. This is even in its construction stage. I think the tree was something I was just totally in awe because the tree was here when I first came in and saw the space. I had a strong background in catering, so I understood volume and then it was very helpful to be a flight attendant and for years knowing what was lacking. If you go to enough airports, there’s things you get there, there’s moments you’re delayed and there’s things you wish you had right then and there. So, I used all of those things when I decided what would work well for this first cycle of this menu.

When people from all over the world come to Atlanta’s airport, what do you want your food or this menu to tell them about the city’s food culture?

I want them to feel the diversity of the food culture. I also want them to feel the love in the food. I can’t speak because I’m not in the back of all these kitchens at these restaurants, but it was really important to me that we were cooking food from scratch. I believe that all cultures have a version of soul food because we all have food that brings us memories that comes from inside. I can give you recipes, but that finishing touch has to come from that heart. And I wanted to make sure that the heart, that hospitality when they come in here in this beautiful setting and then actually taste this food–they taste love. They taste a melding of cultures. And they taste sophistication because there is sophistication in the techniques that we use and the spices that we’re using.

So if you’re unfamiliar, there’s things that we are going to introduce you to. And if you’re familiar, there’s something that will make you say, “Wow.”I just had an Indian gentleman walk up to me just now and say, “I appreciate all of the vegetarian options.” And I’m looking and there’s the biryani on his plate, and he’s got vegetable gumbo next to that, and there’s a whole cake. And there’s a smile on his face and he’s happy. So that is what I hope to accomplish here with the type of cuisine that we want to present.

So with this amazing lounge opening during Black History Month, is there an additional excitement or additional resonance for you with you being a Black female chef?

Yes, and I promise I’m not going to cry because it is something that brings tears to my eyes. This is beyond my imagination. I came into this as this was calling me. I like cooking. And then at one point I thought everybody likes to cook food—everybody knows how to cook. And it took me quite a few years before I realized, well no, you know something. You’ve got a little niche that people don’t really have and trying to maneuver in this world that we’re in, it’s been a difficult journey. So, to make it to the point where a global company has looked at you and said, “You are who we want,” it says a lot to me about my journey and what I’ve done, but it also says a lot to me about the company that I’m involved with.

And that was really important to me that there was a company who looked at this city and thought, “what could we do? How do we represent this city?” And said, “That Black woman there, that African-American woman is the one we want to represent the city.” So for this particular month to be going on, I do feel probably somewhere we’re making history and I’m here for it. I am here for it and I’m all in. And I am so grateful and so thankful.

You used the term soul food a lot when we were speaking. If someone were to ask you, “what is soul food?” What would you tell them?

To me, it is food that touches the soul. I think that for each of us, there’s some type of food that evokes a memory. We grow up with food from the moment you’re born. When you’re in the tummy, let’s have a baby shower, there’s food involved. Babies here, there’s food. Holidays, weddings, deaths, food is all around us and it is definitely a part of each and every person’s life. And when you can create a meal and it’s the meal that gives you good feelings, sometimes sad feelings, but from a good place, to me, that’s soul food. It has to touch you. Our food, African-American food, it came out of strife, but it also came out of love. And we have ancestors that were able to take nothing and make something out of it. I joke all the time, I’m like, think there’s chitlins on this hand, there’s filet mignon on that. Which one’s the easier one to make taste good? It’s the filet mignon.

But those foods of comfort, those foods that tell stories that people thought at some point they were ashamed of. But how can you be ashamed of something that nourishes you and comes from love? So for me, I have a very broad definition of it and then I also have my little microcosm definition of what I grew up with. So, what touches my soul may not be the same food that touches yours or hers. But if it touches us from within, then that’s what it is. So just like that gentleman who said, “Thank you for having these vegetables, this vegetarian option,” some kind of way I touched something in him. I don’t know what it is necessarily, but I did what I set out to do.

Source link

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

Enable registration in settings - general
Shopping cart