Why Top Chef Tiffany Derry Embraced Her Southern Heritage - Exclusive

Tiffany Derry was a quarter finalist on Season 7 of "Top Chef" and, in a back-to-back first, immediately competed on "Top Chef: All-Stars." Since that star-making introduction to the world, Derry has frequently appeared as a competitor and guest judge on an increasing number of cooking shows, and she made news again recently when she and her restaurant, Roots Southern Table, received James Beard Award nominations. 

Roots Southern Table is a fusion of international cuisine with the comfort food of Derry's Southern upbringing. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, she revealed that it took her a long time to embrace her roots. Derry was raised in Port Allen, West Baton Rouge, Louisiana and grew up with delicious Southern food cooked by her mother and grandmother. "Growing up, I didn't realize that we ate so well," Derry told Mashed. "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." 

Back then, Derry was more interested in playing outside than cooking, but at age 15, she got a job as a server at a local IHOP and eventually was promoted to kitchen cook. The IHOP gig funded Derry's culinary school training, and after graduation, a trip to France changed her life. "At this moment, I'm thinking that this is probably where I'm going to end up," Derry recalled. "I'm going to need to work somewhere in Europe." But she realized that she could cook French cuisine anywhere and returned to the U.S. Travel is Derry's passion, and in every country she has visited, she has learned the native cuisine. Southern cooking, though, wasn't part of her repertoire. "I didn't see Southern food being elevated or in fine dining."

Tiffany Derry realized that Southern food tells a story

But, soon, Tiffany Derry began to miss the comfort foods of her childhood and the special memories of her grandmother stirring pots of greens, pickling fresh-picked vegetables, and making jams and preserves. As she was traveling, Derry saw the similarities between international cuisine and Southern food. "It took me down this rabbit hole of 'Where did our roots really come from?'" she told Mashed. Derry saw influences from France, Africa, Spain, Korea, and Vietnam and realized that these were at the heart of Southern cooking, particularly the foods of Louisiana. 

Duck fat is considered liquid gold in France (and pretty much everywhere else), and as Derry tells it, she was "playing in the kitchen" one day and wondered what would happen if she fried chicken in duck fat. Derry got stunning results — "seriously, why don't we fry everything in duck fat?" she posited — and the idea for her first restaurant, Roots Chicken Shak, took hold. Derry's duck-fat fried chicken became so popular, she was literally stopped in the streets and asked if she happened to be carrying some in her purse! 

Buoyed by the success of Roots Chicken Shak, Derry and business partner Tom Foley opened Roots Southern Table in June 2021, and even with the challenges of the pandemic, the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. Derry never imagined that the Southern food she grew up with would be so embraced. But Roots Southern Table isn't just about her family; it's also about the people of the South. "When I started seeing it under this new light ... I wanted to be able to tell those stories, and now that's what I'm able to do."

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