Last June, I sat down with chef Tiffany Derry. She was interviewing cooks and performing some recipe R&D ahead of opening Roots Southern Table, her newest and perhaps most personal restaurant to date.
“If I’m being really honest,” Derry told me this summer, she was feeling “nervous, excited, a little anxious” about opening her Farmers Branch restaurant. How would her vision of Southern cuisine be received as a food so personal to so many? It’s personal for Derry, too. Her mother’s gumbo is on the menu—mom’s butter cake, too. “She’s a lot of my inspiration,” said Derry.
At Roots, Derry melds comfort with contemporary in a way that eludes any sense of pretension. It’s balanced. There’s a familiarity and yet a wonderful discovery that happens no matter how many cast-iron corn breads you’ve had in your life.
In her Pekin Duck dish, there’s crispy duck skin on the breast alongside confit leg and thighs; meanwhile, the duck offal (livers, gizzards, heart) is cooked down into the accompanying dirty rice. The latter is an ode to Derry’s mother’s own chicken dirty rice. Even a dish as simple as black-eyed pea hummus takes on meaning: hers, a smooth-as-silk iteration full of flavor, is connected to memories of her grandmother cooking a pot of those peas for supper.
“I think people will be so surprised because the idea of Southern, a lot of times people talk about specific dishes like…fried chicken, mac and cheese,” Derry said. “But for us, Southern is about the land, about the water, about the people who live in the South and what they contribute to Southern cuisine.”
That shines through at Roots Southern Table, and it shines through Derry as chef, too. You might already recognize her from appearances on television shows like Top Chef. If you’ve been to her fast-casual spot, Root Chicken Shak, then you’ve likely formed a borderline obsessive bond with her signature duck fat fried chicken. There’s no mistaking Derry has been on a steady rise, both locally and nationally, in the world of culinary acclaim.
This week, the New York Times released its 2021 Restaurant List. The collection of 50 restaurants across the country is meant to represent the “most vibrant and delicious restaurants in 2021,” according to the Times. They aren’t ranked. They aren’t all new, even. What all of them do, though, both new and old, is “beckon us back to the table.”
Four other Texas restaurant made the list: Sylvia’s in Brownsville, Birdie’s in Austin, San Antonio’s Fish Lonja, and Blood Bros. BBQ of Bellaire, just south of Houston. A rousing round of applause to all the gastronomic paladins.
If Derry still harbors any anxieties that Roots is not only part of a moment but a (major) part of a movement, let this week be a heartening reminder. She’s repping North Texas from the Branch and well beyond. Now, I’m really hankering for her duck offal dirty rice and an icy gin cocktail.