It was a big deal when Beaumont, Texas got its first IHOP. Since it was a small city with relatively few choices, a new restaurant close to their only mall was cause for celebration. One morning, however, one of the line cooks didn’t show up for work, leaving them critically short-staffed during the busiest times of the day. When the manager wondered what they were going to do, the other guys in the kitchen looked at each other. “Go get Tiffany,” one of them suggested.
Tiffany was a 16-year-old high school student, and one of the more popular servers. She’d been among the first to apply for a job there, and originally had wanted to work in the kitchen. Tiffany settled for server because, at the time, IHOP didn’t employ women as cooks. Nevertheless, on her breaks and whenever there was a lull in traffic, she’d pop back to the kitchen and bounce around the different stations, asking to be shown how to fold omelets and fry bacon. Bright and expressive with a loud, honest laugh, she was immediately likeable and a quick study. Officially, she wasn’t trained. But unofficially, Tiffany Derry had learned anyway and she’d been waiting for her opportunity.
She worked her first-ever shift on expo, the most complicated position in the restaurant and the heart of the kitchen. She called all the tickets, “dropped” all the pancakes, and took charge of the pace of the entire restaurant. Since it was the International House of Pancakes, pancakes alone were the largest job. At any time, a server might rush up with a correction to a dish already in progress, and Tiffany would have to slot it into an already moving train. Sometimes even the most prolific chefs who can work magic with nothing but a carrot can’t harness a chaotic expo.
“You have to be able to communicate effectively and be on top of everybody. Can you imagine? I’m 16, learning the hardest part of the kitchen first,” she recalls and smiles. “It was amazing. I loved it.”
Today, Tiffany Derry is a seasoned culinary master with stints on reality shows like Top Chef, Top Chef Junior, Bar Rescue and Hungry Investors under her belt and accolades from the various Dallas-based restaurants she has fostered over the years. These days, she pours her heart and soul into a stall at Plano’s Legacy Hall, Roots Chicken Shak.
We meet in the morning at Legacy Hall, before most of the stalls have opened for the day. First thing, Tiffany likes to tour around the stalls and greet the other chefs and their teams as they do their morning preparations in their respective corners. She’s never met a stranger, walking into every room as if it’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.
After she makes her rounds, she returns to Roots Chicken Shak. “Love,” a sign over the register reads, “starts here.” With robin’s egg blue tile, cotton accents and a ceramic rooster, Roots is a comfortable, homey kitchen the size of a stage set. Tiffany is leading lady.
“A shak is where you find all the great food,” she explains, waving at one of the other stall owners across the floor. “A shak is where you want to hang out. Mine is just a little prettier. It’s a nice shak.”
Roots is built on nostalgia. Tiffany grew up drinking sun tea, so she put sweet tea on the menu. She also has fond memories of hot summer days refreshed with Kool-Aid. So Roots has Kool-Aid too. Both come with free refills. But the most important thing, without a doubt, is the chicken. Tiffany specializes in duck-fat fried chicken “done the right way,” meaning it’s hand-battered and lovingly treated with Tiffany’s signature seasoning blend. Originally, she served wings, caesar salad, banana pudding, and the Spicy Bird (a killer fried chicken thigh that comes topped with kimchi mayo, pepper jack cheese torched for smokiness, pickled peppers, cauliflower and carrots, lettuce tomatoes, mustard grain and kale). The menu has since expanded to include chicken fingers and, oddly enough, ranch dressing.
“People love chicken strips, so I figured okay, give them what they want.” she puts in. “It’s an amazing chicken strip.” As for the ranch, no one in Legacy Hall actually served ranch, but everyone seemed to want it, especially those coming from Forno Nero, who wanted to dip their pizza in it. “Hey, what you do with your ranch is your own business,” Tiffany jokes. So, Tiffany whips up homemade ranch that can be purchased separately.
“You know when fried chicken is right and when it’s wrong,” Tiffany assures me. “I felt like if I put it on a menu it had to be the best or they’d come for me. It had to be amazing. My clientele base will tell me if it’s not right. Oh, they’ll let me know. I’m under a microscope. But I just want people to enjoy it.”
Tiffany was shaped by a large, loving family—ten aunts and uncles—who gathered around the table. “Food is what we do,” she says. “My mom, if she hasn’t eaten rice and gravy and meat in a week, she’s faint. Then there’s me eating steamed rice, kimchi and a fried egg for breakfast; I’m so weird!” she bursts out laughing. But in Tiffany’s family, food offers more than sustenance; it provides union and community with deep emotional resonance. Though Tiffany has traveled the world and eaten in every corner of it, her mother’s gumbo is her cornerstone, “a relationship that won’t let me off the ride.” In fact, the first time Tiffany was invited to cook at the White House for President Barack Obama, she made duck-fat fried chicken, banana pudding and her mother’s gumbo.
“This is where it gets bad,” Tiffany admits. “If I go somewhere and they have gumbo on the menu I have to get it. It could be a Chinese restaurant, but if I see it on a menu, I have to have it.” As a result, she’s choked down some pretty awful iterations of the dish, including one from a fried fish restaurant she describes as “white as a t-shirt.”
“I waste so much money on gumbo. Most likely I won’t like it, but it’s that chance that it might be good, that I’ll find one place that has amazing gumbo.” But be warned: if Tiffany likes a dish at a restaurant—really, really likes it—she won’t merely compliment the chef; she might ask to learn from them in the kitchen. At least, that’s what she did at her favorite local Thai place.
“It’s a place called ZENse in Irving,” Tiffany explains, eyes lighting up. “It’s family-owned and I wanted to learn how to make their pad thai. I’ve traveled the world, eaten it everywhere and I wanted to know why was theirs was so good.” After working the lunch rush with them for a week, they became like family. Tiffany visits for breakfast whenever she’s in the area, coming in with a loud, “Hey sisters!” If she has an ounce of extra time, she throws on an apron and cooks with them.
Part of the reason Tiffany loves food is that the kitchen has always been a place for family, from her upbringing learning from her mother, to IHOP, where she unknowingly broke the glass ceiling, to her big family at Legacy Hall.
Tiffany wasn’t ever reluctant to throw on an apron so the kitchen very quickly became her life, especially once she entered the culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. Every night, she worked ten hour shifts at IHOP, getting off work at six. Every morning, Tiffany’s supervisor would arrive and scout the parking lot for her car, where she’d be napping in the front seat, fresh from the night shift. He’d tap on the window to wake her up and she’d pop up with her usual cheery smile and rush off for a full day of class.
“Hey, no pity for me, I loved it!” she says. “I love the craziness.” For her, the crazier the better. Her night shifts also paid for her to take culinary trips once a year through her program. She learned one of her favorite dishes of all time in Italy, Cacio e Pepe, pasta seasoned only with black pepper, butter and parmesan, held together with the barest hint of water from boiling the pasta. Once, she and her classmates made tortilla soup for a school in China and she remembers their fascination with cheese, because it was so strange and different. While there, she, in turn, fell in love with bok choy. “Oh, they teased me, ‘Aren’t you sick of bok choy yet?’ Well, I’m still not over it.”
Finding joy in food would never be Tiffany’s problem; hers was developing a thick enough skin to survive the jagged, critic-haunted path to culinary acclaim. She remembers the first time she had the privilege of working for an African American chef in the fine-dining sphere.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen a black chef doing fine dining,” she recalls. “I didn’t know of any black women doing it. I still don’t know many.” His name was Mark Holley and before she came on board, he’d heard about the peppy, overachieving young woman who barely slept, but had a hand in every club and organization at the institute. “He became my papa bear. He’s my mentor.”
In her early days in his kitchen, Holley sat her down and said, “Look here. You have two strikes against you: you’re black and you’re a woman. You’re in a male-driven business that many people don’t believe you should be in.” For the first time, Tiffany thought back to being a teenager who couldn’t even work in the kitchen at IHOP because of her gender. She realized what it meant: she wasn’t wanted or welcome.
“You want to run a kitchen?” Holley challenged her. “I’ll show you. But you have to learn to be tough.”
Numbers don’t lie. According to data collected by Data USA, 78.4 percent of all chefs and cooks are male and African Americans make up only 11.6 percent of all chefs and cooks in the US.
Tiffany explains why it matters: “The problem is that when you don’t see someone who looks like you doing it, it makes you feel like it’s not attainable for you. I didn’t see people doing what I wanted to do. I needed a hero, so that’s what I became. I didn’t have representation so I decided to be that for those coming after me.” Once—after her Top Chef fame—she went to teach at a culinary school in Desoto and wore her hair with its natural curls. On the show, she’d always worn it straightened. She was taken aback by the reaction of the women there. “They were so excited that I had hair like theirs. The smallest detail can open up an entire world for you. That’s why Black Panther was a big deal: Look, there are superheroes that are black! There are women kicking ass—not just women, but black women.”
Perhaps it influenced her eventual decision to go on Top Chef. She was working crazy 80-hour shifts, living in the square footing of Goldfish, her restaurant at the time, when they called to ask if she’d be interested in going on the show. (They’d discovered her on a list of the sexiest chefs in Dallas.)
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” she recalls. “One day you’re winning and hours later you could be going home. It’s only the plate in front of you that matters.” A semi-finalist, Tiffany went on to win fan favorite and earned an invitation to compete on Top Chef All Stars barely a week after she finished her first stint on the show. On Top Chef All Stars, she earned fourth place.
After Top Chef, she found herself in a continuing spotlight. While she hadn’t changed, suddenly, everything she cooked was magnified. “There was no room for mistakes anymore,” she explains. “I just wanted to cook great food, and people to be happy.”
Once, enjoying summer truffles, she whipped up a monkfish in red wine sauce with them and a critic came at her with claws out. “He wrote that I had no idea what I was doing. It was so mean, I thought it must have been written by an ex-boyfriend,” she jokes. “It felt so personal. But it was a life lesson. There are 15 to 20 people in the kitchen, but you’re the one that gets crucified. It’s the way it goes. If you become a chef, you understand what that means. You take it with a grain of salt and evaluate it. There’s always truth to it. But if the dish is how you want it to be, move on. If there’s a problem, fix it. Then let it go.”
Today, Tiffany is busier than ever, though she no longer pulls all nighters and lives off of rare naps. These days she actually sleeps five or six hours a night. Still, she commutes between Dallas and LA for Top Chef Junior, which she says is the most fun she’s ever had on TV. She visits Congress to fight for bills that will help eliminate food waste and anticipates the upcoming publication of her first cookbook, Brunch at Tiffany’s. Naturally her heart is drawn to breakfast and brunch.
“Life begins at the breakfast table,” she explains. “It did for me; I mean, I started at IHOP.”
As for Roots, Tiffany plans to turn it into an all-women franchise. “I didn’t have that when I was coming up, so I’m excited to create it,” she says. “I don’t want to be the only one! Let’s all go up together.” If there’s anything that she’s learned over the years, it’s that there’s room at the table for everyone.
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s November 2018 issue.