How Top Chef Judge Tiffany Derry Is Changing The Restaurant Business - Exclusive

"Top Chef" fan favorite and James Beard Award double nominee Tiffany Derry has had a few moments in her professional career that changed her and eventually lead her to want to do more to make a difference in the industry. She got her first job when she was only 15 after walking into her local IHOP and boldly telling the manager that she wanted to cook. But Derry was shocked to be told that women weren't allowed in the kitchen. "I was in a bubble," she recalled in an exclusive interview with Mashed. "I didn't understand that they wouldn't want women in the kitchen, and I didn't understand that it was a guy's world." Derry eventually accepted a job as a server, but one day a cook called in sick, and she was finally asked to join the front-of-line in the kitchen. Soon, she paid her way through culinary school while working the graveyard shift at IHOP. Derry shared that she appreciates the opportunity that IHOP gave her, but she never forgot being barred from a restaurant kitchen because of her gender.

Another moment that changed her was a trip to France — when Derry returned from Europe, Chef Mark Holley sought her out and offered her an internship. "He was the only Black chef I had ever met," Derry told Mashed. "It was pretty inspiring for me." Derry then worked for Holley for several years, and along the way, she was creating her own menu that was a fusion of European cuisine and the Southern comfort foods cooked by her mother and grandmother. In 2017, she opened a restaurant in Austin — Roots Chicken Shak — with business partner Tom Foley that featured her duck fat-fried chicken. Derry realized that her restaurant could provide work opportunities to the Black community. "We would be able to do something special within the community," Derry explained, "very different than [when] I grew up, never seeing any person of color owning a business."

Tiffany Derry is on a mission to support Black entrepreneurs

Derry opened her second restaurant, Roots Southern Table, during the pandemic, and as with many restaurants — new and old — there were challenges. This was mid-June 2021, but as Derry told us, people were clamoring to dine out again at that time, and Southern Table was an immediate success. At the time, Derry remembered never seeing a Black woman in charge of a business when growing up and wanted to change that chronic lack of representation by developing a model that supported entrepreneurship within the Black community. "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." 

Derry and her business partner Tom Foley planned out how Roots Chicken Shak could offer franchise opportunities to budding Black entrepreneurs who had an excellent work ethic but were denied funding due to a poor credit rating. They resolved to do the initial leg work, source financials, and find the banks who would work with talented Black men and women in helping them start a business. "I wanted to create more of ... a concept that we could grow it, where we could have a whole bunch of [locations]." Derry and Foley opened a second Roots Chicken Shak, but before they could put their long-range plan into effect, they needed to ensure that the second restaurant was as successful as the first. People can't get enough of Derry's duck fat-fried chicken, and so, a third Chicken Shak is on the horizon, and it will be their first franchise opportunity. "Now we're at that point ... we're seeing it come together."

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