In 2009, Dallas chef Tiffany Derry got a phone call that would forever change the trajectory of her culinary career. On the other end of the line was television production company Magical Elves, asking the chef if she wanted to appear on the seventh season of Bravo’s culinary competition series Top Chef. “I said yeah, right, this isn’t Top Chef. Quit calling me,” Derry recalls. “I initially said no. I don’t do drama, I’ve never lived with people, and I’m working. Then they said that I could win $125,000, and my answer was, ‘Heck yeah. I’ll be there.’ I hadn’t ever seen $125,000 before!”
The rest, as they say, is history. In the years following her appearance on Top Chef, Derry has transformed into a bona fide food TV celebrity with appearances on Chopped, Top Chef Junior, Bar Rescue, and of course, the series that made her famous. She opened two locations of Roots Chicken Shak, a fast-casual spot slinging crispy chicken that’s deep-fried in duck fat. During most of that time, though, Derry hasn’t operated a full-service restaurant in her home city. But that all changed in June, when she opened the much-anticipated Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch.
The last time that Derry helmed a full-service restaurant kitchen in Dallas was in 2013, when her much-lauded Uptown hot spot Private Social closed its doors. Opened in 2010, Private Social made Derry a household name in Dallas. It was beloved by critics and diners alike, and is the place where Derry’s signature dish — unbelievably crispy chicken that’s fried to perfection in duck fat — was born. Following the closure of Private Social, Derry struck out on her own, pursuing a wide range of cooking and consulting gigs while making regular appearances on television — and developing a vision for the restaurant that would become Roots.
Derry spent seven years searching painstakingly for the right location for the restaurant, and figuring out exactly what she wanted its identity to be. “The concept has changed slightly. At first, it was about how far I could push the boundaries of Southern cooking,” she says. “Now, it’s about wanting to pay more homage to what I call ‘family food,’ or what we ate growing up at the house.”
More than that, though, Derry had to fully embrace her Southern identity, something that can be a little challenging for a classically trained chef with an interest in a wide range of cuisines. “I wasn’t fully comfortable in all my Southernness. I was still figuring things out,” she says. “Southern food doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves, and people have a misconception of what they think ‘Southern food’ really is. It isn’t just macaroni and cheese and comfort food. It’s so much more than that.”
Deciding to go all-in on Southern cuisine was a decidedly complicated decision, especially for one of the industry’s few prominent Black woman chefs. At her previous restaurants, like Private Social, Derry’s menu spanned a wide range of cuisines and influences, and she wasn’t sure if Southern cuisine was exactly how she wanted to be represented in the industry. “There were things I needed to go through in life to fully understand that this is what I wanted,” she says. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one type of cuisine. Every time someone sees a Black chef, they assume you cook soul food or Southern food.”
Ultimately, Derry found that Southern cuisine was where she was most comfortable. At Roots Southern Table, Derry redefines expectations of what Southern cuisine actually means. For years, Southern foodways have often been defined by white chefs, frequently male, and often at the exclusion of many of the influences that have shaped the cuisine, including West African and Native American flavors. “It’s all about who stirs the pot. When you’re in New Orleans, and you see this large Vietnamese community, those people are still Southern, and they’re cooking Southern food. Everyone who settled in that area created dishes based on what was in that area, and a unique cuisine developed. I’m more focused on telling those stories, and what we can do with native Southern ingredients.”
The menu at Derry’s new restaurant brings together the flavors she grew up eating in Southeast Texas with her vast range of experiences and training in dishes like crab-laden gumbo inspired by her mother’s secret recipe, zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy, and jerk-spiced lamb chops.
When she opened the restaurant, Derry knew that she could expect to field a slew of opinions from diners on whether or not her Southern dishes were actually true Southern cuisine. “We all have in our minds what ‘authentic’ Southern means, and usually that’s based on whatever your mom or grandmother cooked when you were growing up,” Derry says. “Those are very personal memories, and when you recreate dishes that are supposed to evoke that kind of feeling, people are always going to have something to say.”
That seems true in Dallas, a city packed with transplants from all over the world, but especially for those that hail from more rural parts of the South. Having a strong opinion on what constitutes a perfect macaroni and cheese dish is practically a rite of passage for anyone from the South, which means serving a very specific take on a dish that people hold so dearly can be rife with controversy. For her part, Derry has decided to skip out on serving mac and cheese altogether — you won’t find it on the menu at any of her restaurants.
More than the food, though, Derry also has an important vision for changing the way the restaurant industry works. That desire is born out of her own experiences as the only woman — and often the only Black chef — in the kitchen. “When I decided to step out on my own and never work for anybody else again, I knew there were things that I wanted to do differently,” she says. “For me, it’s about everyone having a voice. I want to have a diverse kitchen, not only men and women, but also people of all races.”
At her restaurant, Derry wants to make sure that the people who work for her don’t have to struggle in the same way that she did. They’re paid more than the industry average, starting at $12 an hour for cooks, and have access to paid time off and health insurance. She’s also working on dispelling the mentality that a worker’s life has to revolve around the restaurant, hoping to make health and well-being a norm in an industry that has rarely prioritized either.
“As a cook coming up in the industry, we didn’t make much money. We worked like crazy, we didn’t have time off,” she says. “I remember all those things very well. We are aware that everyone has a family, the restaurant isn’t the only thing they have going on their lives.”
And despite ongoing hiring struggles in the restaurant world, Derry’s strategy seems to be paying off. They’re still hiring; Roots Southern Table has been impacted less harshly than many establishments, some of which have been forced to reduce hours or close altogether due to staffing woes.
“Our core group is great, and they’re here every day. They’re putting in the work. I’m happy that they’re happy, and I know that when they’re happy, everything here just runs better,” she says. “I need my employees. I can’t run three restaurants by myself and be on TV and create product and do all the things I want to do. I believe that if I take care of them, they’ll take care of me.”