Tiffany Derry Talks About Southern Food, Top Chef, And Restaurant Equality - Exclusive Interview

On Season 7 of "Top Chef," fan favorite Tiffany Derry charmed the world with her warmth, confidence, and skill. She then competed on "Top Chef All-Stars" and secured her status as a new culinary star, but Derry's rise didn't come easy. At 15, she applied as a cook at her local IHOP and was told that a Black woman wasn't allowed in the kitchen, so she worked as a server instead. Derry proved her mettle and was finally asked to work as a cook. She stayed with IHOP to finance culinary school and after a transformational trip to France, she began to incorporate French techniques — and other international influences — into the Southern recipes her mother and grandmother cooked, culminating in her famous duck-fat fried chicken and her first restaurant, Roots Chicken Shak

Recently, Derry was nominated for two prestigious 2022 James Beard Foundation awards as Best Chef: Texas and her restaurant, Roots Southern Table, as Best New Restaurant. Derry is a whirlwind of energy as she balances her two restaurants with competing on Food Network's "Tournament of Champions" and serving as judge on Season 19 of "Top Chef," "The Great American Recipe," and Season 12 of "Master Chef." Derry is also a passionate advocate for racial and gender equality in the restaurant industry and is creating opportunities for people who haven't been given a fair chance to succeed. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Derry told us about her "Top Chef" experiences, her activism, her Southern upbringing, and its deep emotional resonance for her today. 

Tiffany Derry got her first training at IHOP

Let's start off with your upbringing and family background.

My family is from Port Allen, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My grandmother had 11 children and she was a single parent for most of her life, which meant that everyone had to cook. That really trickled down to what I do. Growing up, I didn't realize that we ate so well. I thought that all families did. There wasn't a whole lot of money to go out to eat, so everyone cooked and that was really how I started. That's the inspiration that I really have for what I do right now — foods I grew up [with] that I didn't see being represented right now are especially here in Dallas, Texas, where I live, to give an homage back to my family.

When did you start cooking? 

My mom laughs at me because she's like, "You just wanted to go play outside back then," but I didn't start cooking professionally until I was 15. I went to cook at IHOP, and I walked in the door and I said, "I want to be a cook." They said, "No women are allowed in our kitchen." I was like, "Well, what can I do?" They were like, "You can be a server." I was like, "Okay, I will do that." I was in a bubble. I didn't understand that they wouldn't want women in a kitchen, and I didn't understand that it was a guy's world. None of that made sense to me, but I didn't worry about it. One day, someone called [off] and boom, they're like, "Tiffany, you want to come do it?" I took that apron off and went in the front, and I really have been cooking since then.

IHOP wasn't initially a pleasant experience, and you stayed with it for quite a while.

It put me through culinary school. Yes. I ended up managing that IHOP and went to culinary school transfer, went to work at another IHOP in another city because I could work graveyard shift, and graveyard shift allowed me 8:00 at night 'til 6:00 in the morning to be able to do everything else that I wanted to do. There was no other job that I could get it all in, so, it was nice.

A trip to France changed Tiffany Derry's life

What culinary school did you go to, and what happened afterward?

I went to the Art Institute of Houston. After culinary school, — it's important to know that while I was in culinary school, there was a trip that was coming up and they were going to France and through all of my studies, French cuisine was "the most important," is how they positioned it. All of the terms that we used were all based [on] French. I said, "Well, there's this big trip happening." My family put together money. I worked a second job to pay, [and] my best friend got a job to help pay to send me to France. I go to France. At this moment, I'm thinking that this is probably where I'm going to end up. I'm going to need to work somewhere in Europe, and it ended up changing my life with how they viewed food and the things that I saw, but I realized that it wasn't important for me to live there.

I came back with that inspiration and that's when I got into the restaurant and I started working for Chef Mark Holley. He was the only black chef that I had ever met, and he called the school for me. In fact, one of the people who was on that trip in France said, "Hey, there's this lady, her name is Tiffany. She's amazing. I think you should meet her." He called the school looking for me and I needed an internship. That's how I started working with him. I worked with him for a few years, but it was the only black chef I ever met. It was pretty inspiring for me.

Tiffany Derry was slow to embrace her Southern roots

You were originally reluctant to embrace your Southern heritage. What changed? Now, you've completely embraced it in your cooking.

Because of how I grew up, and the fact that I didn't see Southern food being elevated or in fine dining or doing those things, I believed that French food was the best ... and even Italian food was put on certain stages that you didn't see my Southern roots. I was very reluctant to cook the foods that I grew up eating. As time went on, I started to miss those foods. I started to miss the way my grandmother prepared the pots of greens and the way that we would go to the garden and pick our vegetables and the way we preserved and made jams and all of those things that were so special. When I went to that trip, my first year in culinary school, it woke up this part of me that wanted to see the world.

I wanted to learn from so many different types of cuisines. At that moment, I made a vow to myself to get out of the country once a year. Even to this day, I've continued to do that. Because I was learning so much about everyone else's cuisine, I could see similarities of Southern ... making kimchi in Korea is very similar to the way that you preserve certain things, right? It's the same idea. The spices are different, and it made me want to explore my own roots even more and explore more dishes like from Africa and how we got here and understanding truly what Southern is. 

It's not a certain dish. It's about the people who make up the South. When I started seeing it under this new light, it was almost like this brand new thing that went off at me. I wanted to be able to tell those stories, and now, that's what I'm able to do.

Tiffany Derry is famous for her duck-fat fried chicken

When did you branch out on your own?

It was a few years ago, and we [along with partner Tom Foley] opened Roots Chicken Shak. We always knew Southern Table was the one I wanted to open first, but Chicken Shak became available ... it was like the timing, everything worked out. Everyone loved my duck fat fried chicken from a previous restaurant, and I would go somewhere, and they'd go, "Do you have any of that duck fat fried chicken in your purse?" I'm like, "Yeah, I'm carrying it around. Right." That was the concept that we decided to go with first, instead of the Southern Table concept, the little brother to Chicken Shak. 

People were blown away by the chicken. I wanted to create more of a smaller, a concept that we could grow it, where we could have a whole bunch of them. We would be able to do something special within the community, very different than what I grew up, never seeing any person of color owning a business. Chicken Shak allowed us to tell that story in a different way and hopefully present more opportunities for others. Now, we're at that point, but in the beginning, it was all we hope we can do that. Now, we're working and we're seeing it come together.

Using duck fat is very French. Is that where you got your inspiration for the chicken?

It is. I remember my first duck fat fry. I was like, "Oh my God." One day, I remember playing in the kitchen and I was like, "Well, what happens if I fry the chicken in duck fat? What flavor will that bring?" Then I did, and it was like, "Seriously, why don't we fry everything in duck fat?" That's how Roots Chicken Shak was born.

Tiffany Derry opened her new restaurant during the pandemic

You opened Roots Southern Table in mid-June 2021 during the pandemic. How did that go?

Well, we were originally supposed to open, like so many other places, before the pandemic, and then we were building during the pandemic and everything went on hold and it came to a point where we needed to do it. We're like, "We'll be smart. We'll be lean. We'll figure it out." We really [had] to open, and it looks like everyone was ready for us to open because we opened and it was busy. Everyone was excited to go out and eat again, and it was great to see those foods that I grew up be embraced in a spotlight that I honestly could have only dreamed.

You opened it to celebrate the foods of your family?

It wasn't really about just my family, but it was the foods of the South, and the journey that it took to not only create Southern, but [also] those people that really had a hand in Southern cuisines. It took me down this rabbit hole of "Where did our roots really come from?" When I thought about it all, especially when I looked at Louisiana, I looked at, "Who are the people who make up Louisiana food?" We had the Africans, we had the French, we had the Germans with the love of sausage and andouille and all of those things. 

We've got Spain and those who were bringing paella. It reminded me of white jollof rice and then jambalaya rice. There was so much influence. You had the Vietnamese, who brought this amazing seafood to the area. There were so many different people and different cuisines that created Southern cuisine. That's why you didn't have Southern cuisines in different parts of the world. It was truly down here in the South.

How Tiffany Derry is changing the restaurant industry

At your restaurant, you have a particular mission of bringing in Black cooks and to help Black people get going in their own businesses. Is that right?

That's correct. Part of growing up not seeing representation, understanding that representation matters, understanding that we must own more of our stuff, really inspired me, [along with] my partner, who does a lot in women entrepreneurship to figure out "How do we change that? How do we close that gap? Why don't people have more?" There's plenty of talent. Talent doesn't come in one specific race. 

That's how we evolved into the model with Roots Chicken Shak, and that was to give those who want a chance in ownership a chance to franchise. We would do some of the leg work, like finding and sourcing financials for them, banks that want to work with those who maybe haven't had the opportunity, maybe that person who doesn't have the best credit score, but has an excellent work ethic, understands a little bit of the business and needs the opportunity.

Are there several franchises of the Chicken Shak?

No, right now we are not franchise. We own the two [existing spotts], we have a new location coming up, which will be our very first [expansion]. We are hoping that will be done next year. It will also be something that we're working on that's a little bit different than the other one. This is the model that we needed to get through location one, location two, to finally get to this third one to where we can really do what we want to do.

Top Chef was a life-changing experience

How were you first approached by "Top Chef"?

I was in one of the restaurants I was the executive chef of, and I was cooking on the line and the maître d' came up and said, "Chef, you have a phone call." I said, "Well, tell them, I'll call him back, you know, I don't take calls in the middle of business," and they're like, "No, I think you should take it. It's 'Top Chef.'" I'm like, "Yeah, okay. 'Top Chef's' calling me." And they're like, "No, it's 'Top Chef.'" I'm like, "Mm-hmm, sure it is." [They said], "Please take the call, take it." I answer, and I have an attitude because I really think it's a prank. I'm like, "Hello?" They're like, "This is Magical Elves, the producers of 'Top Chef.' We'd love to have you on." I'm like, "What?" I originally said, "I wasn't interested because I don't need this." They're like, "Well, you could win $125,000." I said, "Well, wow, where do I sign up?"

What was the experience like?

Oh, it was fun. It was a crazy emotional rollercoaster. Every emotion that you can think, it had you questioning if you were a good chef or not, it had you feeling like you were the best chef. The rollercoaster could go from really high to really low all within minutes, depending on how you did. It taught me about myself, and it taught me to really trust my own instincts. It confirmed for me that I was enough and that I knew what I was doing.

Which season were you on? 

The first season that I was on was Season 7 and that was in DC and the second season was "All-Stars," Season 8. I went back to back. I was the first to do back to back because Season 7 was in DC, and then "All-Stars" was in New York and it happened so quick.

You're a judge now on several shows. How are you balancing all that with your restaurant?

It's an everyday [process] figuring it out. We have a great team, we have some great support at the restaurant. We spent the time training to make sure that we can do that. Now, I'm figuring out whatever else we have to do to make sure we stay busy. Judging and appearing on other shows help make sure that we're busy, and that our name is out there. People are seeing what we're doing, but I tell you what, every day we're figuring it out.

Tiffany Derry was recently nominated for two James Beard awards

How did you feel when you heard about the two James Beard finalist nominations?

I heard about one and I was like, "You got to be kidding me. Right? You got to be kidding me." The "Best New Restaurant" [nomination] took me over, to know and to see Southern food represented like this on a large scale. Going back to that person that [has] never seen it or was told that Southern food is not going to be on the same scale as these others, that was amazing. Honestly, I still don't know if I fully have grasped it yet.

What's the one ingredient you couldn't live without?

Lately, I feel like I can't live without duck fat. It adds flavor to everything, even cakes. I love lime. Lime is one of those things, acid in general, but I really love lime. I can't live without salt. I mean, who can?

Which chef would you like to have cook a meal for you?

I have been told that my great-great grandmother was an amazing cook, and she cooked in kitchens as well, and I never experienced her food. I imagine often, dishes that I've been taught about her or, through my grandmother or through my mom, but I would love to have my great-great grandmother cook for me. That would be amazing.

What's your favorite go-to fast food and where is it?

I don't really do a lot of fast food. If I'm going to eat it, I feel like I don't eat fast food often, but when I do, it's usually Chicken Shak. I know it's really cheesy of an answer, but it's true. It's like, "If I'm going to eat the chicken, I'm going to eat it from there. Why would I eat it from anywhere else?" We have this amazing Caesar salad that people wouldn't think of that goes at a chicken joint, and it has white marinated anchovies [with] the dressing we make in-house. It has duck fat bread crumbs on the top. Yes, I want that, every time.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I believe in making sure that we leave the country in a better place than what we're finding in. Right now, that job is seeming to be a very large job, but I encourage everyone out there to think about the food they waste, think about what they buy, and ask questions on where their food comes from. It's so important to get a grasp on where our food's coming from and how you can help make it a better place.

To find out more about Roots Chicken Shak and Roots Southern Table, visit her restaurant group's website. You can also follow Chef Tiffany Derry on Instagram.