As we approach Black History Month, Fort Worth native Chef Tamra Patterson, better known as Chef Tam, has reflected on her Southern restaurant roots and brought a modern soul food destination to Arlington called Chef Tam’s Express.
Following her wildly successful first restaurant opening in Memphis, Tennessee, Chef Tam’s Underground Café, Chef Tam came home to bring her approach to soul food- deemed Cajun soul food fusion – to her Dallas/Fort Worth community. Her journey as a black, female restaurateur is one that was, and still is, hard fought, but as she notes, has always been a part of her DNA.
Born and raised in Fort Worth, Chef Tam comes from a long line of cooks, bakers and restaurant owners, including her maternal grandfather who owned a BBQ restaurant, her father who owned a homestyle restaurant, and her paternal grandmother, who she affectionally calls Nanna, who was a professional baker. Given her family’s rich history with food, she knew even from a young age that cooking in a professional setting would be a key part of her destiny.
“As a proud black woman and restaurateur, I’m reflecting on the importance of what food means in black culture, and how I can tap into that deeply intimate part of our heritage to serve my communities.”
In the early stages of developing the plan for her restaurant, Chef Tam dug deep into black food culture, studying the intricate details of black food in America. From slaves using leftovers from the primary house’s dinners to the produce they grew in the fields, these staple foods of yesteryear developed and evolved from generation to generation, eventually emerging into the traditional comfort foods of today. With this knowledge and in-depth look at her own lineage, Chef Tam began to create dishes that would entice taste buds across multiple generations. And while dishes like fried green tomatoes, blackened catfish, fried chicken and grits were popular, Chef Tam decided to dig even deeper, and create a modern take on black food, merging two powerful types of black approaches to cooking – soul and Cajun. And so, Chef Tam’s signature food genre, Cajun Soul food, was born.
“Food has always played an important role in our culture and history. Many people don’t know that soul food was born out of necessity,” said Chef Tam. “When Africans were brought to America and enslaved, they were given the scraps of the food, especially meat. They learned to take those parts and create what are now delicacies like chitterlings, neckbones, liver and onions, beans and cornbread, etc.”
“At Chef Tam’s Underground Café and Chef Tam’s Express, we serve up culture, comfort, hope and a whole lot of love in every bite.”
Understanding that the modern diet and tastes of black culture has expanded and become greatly experimental in the last 20+ years, Chef Tam has challenged herself to develop approachable menus to accommodate these new tastes and lifestyles. For example, she’s integrating more vegetarian and vegan-friendly foods into her restaurant’s menus with her new-age approach to Cajun Soul Food, cooking with thoughtful ingredients rooted in history and twists to fit modern trends and lifestyles, such as black-eyed pea fritters, and vegan broccoli beef.
Chef Tam is known for her restaurants as well as multiple appearances on the Food Network including:
- Guys Grocery Games (2018). During the competition, Chef Tam was challenged by three classically trained chefs; and although their talents were strong, hers were stronger, as Chef Tam was deemed champion after wowing the judges with her soulful Bayou Lovers rendition of mac and cheese filled with crab and shrimp. She also impressed with her peach cobbler French toast, candied cayenne bacon, and her now famous soul pizza, starring collard greens.
- Burger Battle for Champions on Guys Grocery Games (2018), which was quickly followed by her participation in the Ultimate Summer Cook-Off
- In April 2022, Food Network called once again and Chef Tam was back on television, this time competing on the highly rated show, Chopped, where she blew the judges away and was crowned champion of the episode.
In addition to Chef Tam’s incredibly successful restaurants and cooking competition participation, she has also launched her own line of cast-iron cookware, hot sauces, spices, and cooking and kitchenware accessories; all of which can be purchased on her website.