Learning to cook came naturally for Deborah VanTrece. The owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta with her wife, Lorraine, and daughter, Kursten, she spent childhood afternoons watching her grandmother at the stove. There was the aunt who made perfect neck bones, and another who had macaroni and cheese down to a science. Her dad was often at the grill, and her mother would head right to the kitchen after work. “I liked to eat, they cooked well, and I paid attention,” she says.
VanTrece left home to become a flight attendant, eventually moving to Atlanta to get married. She had always loved to cook, so when flight attendants went on strike in 1993, it seemed like the obvious answer. After culinary school, she worked as the executive chef for a catering company during the Olympic Games in Atlanta. That led to more jobs cooking for dignitaries and international customers, and she expanded her repertoire to the cuisine that has made Twisted Soul a favorite: dishes rooted in the soul food she grew up eating married with comfort food from around the globe.
One of her favorite jobs came in the late 1990s, when she cooked for the German consul in Atlanta. He and his wife liked a mix of cuisines, but they always appreciated a good Schweineschnitzel, made by pounding cuts of pork loin thin, coating them in bread crumbs, and quickly frying the cutlets until crisp. “To me, it was the equivalent of country-fried steak in the South,” VanTrece says. And it became her inspiration for a sophisticated but simple take on chicken and waffles that stars pounded duck breast on top of a sweet potato waffle scented with vanilla and cardamom.
She came up with the idea while working on her first cookbook, The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors, out this March. She knew that a duck breast would take well to the schnitzel treatment, and because duck pairs nicely with something earthy and sweet, sweet potatoes were a natural building block for the waffles.
For cooks new to pounding out duck breast, she advises a light hand. It takes less pressure to flatten duck breast than it does chicken. After the breasts sit in the refrigerator in a generous sprinkle of seasonings, cooking takes only a few minutes. “You’re almost just putting some color on them,” she says. For the waffle batter, she bakes and mashes the sweet potato, leaving a little texture so the waffles have a bit more structure. (She even uses canned sweet potatoes if she’s short on time.) To finish, she suggests drizzling a little maple syrup or adding a dollop of peach jam. Some orange marmalade thinned out with water and heated until syrupy also brings some fruity sweetness to the party.
The dish is exactly what VanTrece hopes to achieve when she cooks: recipes that draw on the best of tradition while offering something new. “I’m always picking up ideas,” she says. “And schnitzel is one of those things that just stays in your mind.”