Chef Tam's Underground Cafe



Photos by Bethany Reid


For the past three years Texas native Tamra Patterson has been serving reimagined soul food to hungry Memphians. The salon owner turned restaurateur says everything changed for her 10 years ago when a dream she had led her on a journey that would take her back to her roots.



"


The first thing I remember eating was my dad’s homemade cherry cobbler when I was three-years-old. As good of a cook as my mom was, most of my memories with food center around my dad — his cobblers, his strawberry cake. To this day I’ve never had smoked chicken that is anywhere near as good as his. Nobody can capture the flavor of smoke like my daddy could. Oh my God, his glazed carrots. I can’t touch them any more because of how much better my dad’s were.


My dad owned a restaurant my whole life, he started cooking when he was 14. His mother was a professional baker and his father was a cook in the Navy. His restaurant was a Cajun-homestyle place called ‘His Touch.’ He definitely wanted everybody to know he was running it. People laugh at me for this, but I never ate at a restaurant until I was in highschool. We ate breakfast at home, my dad packed our lunches and we ate dinner together at night. We never even ate at my dad’s restaurant, in fact we didn’t go there unless we were working. My dad was so militant and structured. You know how you see kids running around their parents’ restaurants? That didn’t happen with my dad.


As a kid I would spend a lot of time in his restaurant. I would clean silverware, wash the dishes, iron the linens. That’s probably the reason it took me so long to want to cook, because it always seemed like a chore. My dad was very strict. For instance, if he made chili and cornbread we weren’t allowed to crumble cornbread into the chili. He would say, ‘Food is art and you have to eat it properly.’ We just wanted to be some kids and throw some cornbread into the chili. But for him it was a thing of beauty and pride.


I never wanted to be a part of any of it because it felt so tedious. Now, I feel I’m living his wildest dream. I’ve been on the Food Network five times and I’ve been featured in several publications, including Essence Magazine. My dad never guessed that the little girl who watched Julia Childs and Justin Wilson on public TV would become this. I have his picture hung in the restaurant. Every time I pass it, I make a point of looking at him because in my heart, I know he would be so proud.


He died in 2010, right when I started cooking. Everyone always says, ‘It’s almost like he was passing you the baton.’ I had quit doing hair six weeks before he passed away. The restaurant is called Chef Tam’s but my business is called Legacy Foods in honor of him. This is about carrying on with my family legacy. It’s my turn to run with this.



I’m originally from Fort Worth, Texas, but my mother and I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma my senior year of high school. I'm originally a cosmetologist by trade and in ‘99 I opened my first salon there and had my son shortly after. Eventually we moved back to Texas and I started another salon there.


I didn’t really start cooking professionally until 2010 when I was about 31, right after my dad died. I had been cooking at home, inviting friends and family over for Sunday dinner. I never really had formal recipes or anything like that.


But one day, something changed. I’m a big journaler, so when I have strange dreams I’ll write them down. I remember one night I had this dream of a recipe. I woke up and wrote it down. I decided that I was actually going to make it, and it turned out to be phenomenal.


It was a pastry that was a cross between a biscuit and a muffin that was stuffed with spinach, cream cheese, sausage and peppers. I called it a ‘Buffin.’ It was so good that I decided to sell them. They ended up getting sold at coffee shops around Dallas. Then I started making them filled with fruit, then those took off. It started to really become something, so it became ‘The Buffin: The thing of a dream.’


"It's almost like if you are still enough in life, your past will always come back to you."

I was on the Food Network one time and they asked how I came up with my seafood mac ‘n’ cheese. I told them it came from a dream. So many of my recipes are like that, they just come from dreams. I didn’t grow up eating seafood mac ‘n’ cheese, I grew up eating fish sticks on Fridays. I just knew what to do, because I dreamt it.


Recently I started researching my ancestry and it blew me away how many of my ancestors couldn't read or write and were still able to accomplish so much. I found images of my first family freed from slavery, and its not very far back. My great-great-grandmother (Grandmother’s grandmother) lived in Mississippi. They were slaves in a place called Sunflower Beat. I know, I had never heard of it either.


I never knew that’s where my family was, and I'm going to tell you how crazy this world is. It's almost like if you are still enough in life, your past will always come back to you. Ever since I was a child my favorite flowers have been sunflowers and it turns out my family was enslaved in a place named for them.


I want to go there just to see what they saw, but it's heart-wrenching for me. Even when I drive past Southaven I'm like, ‘OK wait….’ and turn around.


When the coronavirus started shutting everything down I got really emotional. We had just opened this location in January, and two months later, on March 19th everything came to a screeching halt. We had 38 employees, and I had to lay off 38 employees.


It broke my heart. I couldn’t sleep or eat for about four days. On the fifth day I came into the restaurant and sat down. I looked up at the mural of my family tree and thought, ‘For all that they’ve endured, I can handle this.’


This infusion of strength just overcame me. Having that mural there is like a daily reminder. If they went through the middle passage, slavery and segregation, you can overcome. They went through what they went through so that I could overcome.


People are constantly asking if they can put their artwork up and I always tell them no. The only thing that’s going on these walls is my grandmother’s recipes, photos of my family and that mural.


My grandmother was a baker by trade and lived in Oklahoma, so we would visit her at her job when we came to see her during Summer. But, any time she came to visit us we would get cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies the size of our heads.


She passed away in 2012, and at the time she was living with one of my aunts. My grandfather had already passed, so my aunt was trying to distribute their possessions amongst the family. She was like, ‘Y'all take what you want so that I don’t have to clean all of this stuff out by myself.’


I had just really started cooking in 2010 and I saw this really nice cookbook. I went to grab it and my uncle was like, ‘No way. That’s my momma’s cookbook.’ Before I could argue my aunt took me into the room and told me not to worry about it. Then she handed me this really old, orange Betty Crocker cookbook that was worn out with red electrical tape keeping it together. When I opened the book it just started swelling and all of these handwritten recipes were coming out of it.


I was just sitting there amazed. At the time, I had no thoughts of opening a restaurant. But, my mom came up to me and said, ‘Do you not see what God is blessing you with? He's giving you the key to the kingdom.’


I had been cooking a little bit at that point, but I wasn't there yet. Along with the recipes there were check stubs from the bakery she worked at. I remember seeing one that was for $132. She had 12 children and a husband to feed.


Thinking about that really shows that nothing can slow you down. I’ve traced my family’s history across the country: from Louisiana to Mississippi, Arkansas to Tennessee, Texas to Oklahoma.


There's nothing I can't survive. Some things might slow me down. But if everything they went through didn’t stop them, then nothing can stop me.


I home schooled my son until he went to high school. Shortly after my grandmother passed, I decided to take him on a black history tour. We went to Birmingham, Atlanta and Memphis. There was just something about Memphis that drew me in. We came back the next year and the next year. The fourth year we came back to Memphis with my sister and best friend. I don’t know why, but I’ll tell you God is funny because I looked them in the eyes and told them, ‘I think I need to move to Memphis.’ I had only been downtown and on North Parkway but I felt I needed to move here, and in 2015 I did. I had no family here, I knew nobody in the city. I just felt like I needed to be here.


It feels like people from here have a hard time seeing the good parts about Memphis.I think that they see it as just this big pot of trouble, but the reality is you can make anything happen here, and you can change people’s lives while doing it.


Outside of feeding people, building them up has been my mission since I first opened the restaurant in 2017. I want to hire people that nobody else will hire. Before COVID-19 shut down everything we had a dishwasher who was bipolar. He had a hard time keeping jobs due to his condition. We worked with him, nobody bothered him and we let him work at his own pace. But I’ll tell you, he never missed a day of work and he became such a huge part of our team.


We need to give people second chances. We should always be about building community and building each other up.


Where I’m from, we celebrate cooking. Before we moved to this location in the Edge, we were in Cooper Young based out of a little bitty house at 2299 Young Ave. We had a 10 seat community table right when you walked in. The goal of it was to bring people together who didn’t look alike or were strangers and to get them to enjoy a meal with one another.


I feel that if we could bring that mentality back, getting together and talking to each other, then families can really get back together again.


There’s a curse in COVID-19, but there’s also a blessing. We had to come home and cook. We had to be around eachother. You see people gardening again. I’m a part of a gardening group online with 12,000 people. Everybody’s offering help. You have a plant that’s not doing too well and you post a picture of it, you’ll get an outpour of advice. ‘Clip that leaf.’ ‘Plant a banana peel next to it.’ Most of these people just know these tricks because it was passed down to them. It’s about talking and sharing information

.

"Children need to see people that look like them that are winning. If they see that, they'll believe they can win too."

sMy son is 16-years-old and a senior in highschool and one day he was like, ‘Mama, do you realize you have pretty much the biggest Black-owned restaurant in the city?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ and he was like, ‘Do you realize it’s owned by a woman?’ I said, ‘...Yeah.’, and then he asked, ‘Do you realize it's owned by a Black woman? Do you realize how significant that is?’


Children need to see people that look like them that are winning. If they see that, they'll believe they can win too. We need that mentality and that hope for every branch of society.


Recently I started a garden.I kept seeing these beautiful cardinals around my garden, so I put out a bird feeder with some feed in it. For about three days I didn’t see any birds take anything. It kind of upset me. There were plenty of squirrels though who were trying to get to it, but couldn’t reach it.


On the fourth day I saw this small cardinal fly over to the feeder. He could barely stick his head in, but he was able to get to it. No joke, the cardinal started pushing feed out for a squirrel on the ground. I just sat there mesmerized. I didn’t have my camera on me, or else I would have taken tons of pictures. I just couldn’t believe it, but it was happening right in front of me. I thought, ‘This is what should be going on in America right now.’


People with wings feeling so good about themselves, that they drop down some feed to help those who can’t fly. The squirrel is still working for the food, it just has a different viewpoint and skillset than the cardinal.


We need to realize that just because one person has wings and the other one doesn’t, it doesn’t make one better than the other — just different. We all have a right to succeed, and should want to see others succeed. I really believe if that ideology was better ingrained into society, the world would be a better place.


"


Visit https://www.thecheftam.com/ to learn more.


PaperHouse Publishing  2020 © 
  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Instagram - White Circle
  • YouTube - White Circle