For Memphis Chef Tamra Patterson, the journey to restaurant owner and world-renowned chef has been anything but conventional. The Dallas/Ft. Worth native was working as a hairstylist when she had a dream about a dessert recipe in 2010. After that dream she immediately got to work making her first pastry, selling it at nearby coffee shops. When the dessert began to quickly sell out in stores, the newbie baker knew she’d found her niche. Within a month, Patterson decided to quit her full-time job as a hairstylist and invest fully in her new business. In 2015 she picked up and moved to Memphis, with no roadmap for success. Instead, she said, she relied on her faith — and it’s proven to be one of the best decisions she’s made.
Tamra, now known as Chef Tam, owns the popular Chef Tam’s Underground Café, located in Cooper-Young, a historic, artsy district in Memphis. She’s been featured on the Food Network four times, prepared dishes for celebrities, and continues to make culinary headlines with her eccentric spins on traditional meals, such as peach cobbler nachos and honey gold ribs.
With another restaurant set to open downtown later this year, Chef Tam continues to expand her business and recipe portfolio. We spoke with the self-taught chef about her journey from hairstylist to world-famous cook and what’s next for the Chef Tam brand. Meet our newest FACE of Memphis!
Did you always want to be a chef?
Actually, no. My father owned a restaurant when I was growing up, and my grandmother was a baker. As a kid, I was always stuck washing the dishes. And I hated it, but good food runs through my veins because I’ve always been around it. Although cooking is second nature to me, I definitely didn’t see myself becoming a chef.
You started making and selling pastries in 2010 in your spare time. Why did you decide to pursue it full-time?
I’d made a living as a hairstylist for most of my life. It really didn’t make sense to stop doing that and to start doing something else. But once I started baking, I would take the pastries to coffee shops and they would be sold out in just a matter of minutes. After that, I felt as if baking was something that I was supposed to be doing. So, I took a leap of faith and completely walked away from doing hair just a couple of months after making my first pastry.
You’re originally from Texas and moved to Memphis in 2015. What prompted you to move here?
I felt in my spirit that I was supposed to move to Memphis. After just taking another leap of faith, I moved and here I am … four Food Network appearances later and about to open up my second restaurant location. And it’s all because I stepped out on faith.
Your restaurant, Chef Tam’s Underground Café has garnered tons of success, and you’re often recognized for your eccentric twist on dishes. Where does your inspiration come from?
For me, it’s always been about what comes to me in a dream. It’s what I feel. I don’t mind making something that seems weird to other people. It’s about doing what I feel and putting all the love in the world into making it and trusting that people will like it.
What’s one of your most favorite dishes to make or eat?
My favorite thing to eat right now is our honey gold fried ribs. Memphis is known for ribs and also their honey gold sauce. I decided to combine the two, and people have loved it. I would also say the apple cobbler nachos are another one. I am in love with apple pie, and so they’re one of my favorites.
You’ve been featured on the Food Network several times. You were even the winner of the hit show, “Guy’s Grocery Games.” How did that opportunity come about?
They (Food Network) actually reached out to me and asked me to be on the show. I thought it was some prank and wouldn’t come to the phone when I got the call at first, but when I got on the phone, she told me that they had been on my Instagram and seen my dishes. Then she asked me a question that I’m sure helped get me on the show. She asked me if Guy, the host, throws a curveball at me, what was I going to do? I had no idea what to say, so I just said the first thing that came to mind: “I’d deep fry it and throw it back to him.” And when I said that she was like, “Okay, we definitely have to have you on the show.”
How did your career as a chef change, if at all, after being featured on Food Network?
I definitely gained more recognition as a chef, and every time Food Network re-airs the episodes, I see a surge in people coming to the restaurant and more social media followers.
What’s been the most surprising thing to you about your success?
The most surprising thing is the positive reception I’ve gotten from people in Memphis. I am not from here, and it’s so shocking to see people who don’t know me, recognize me and be excited to meet me and want to take pictures. I was out the other week and two ladies came up to me asking for pictures. They also said they were surprised that I was so down to earth. I am really grateful for all of the love and support. It’s been very interesting to see.
What do you love most about the city?
I love Memphis’s history and culture. The history of this place is so phenomenal, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a serious history buff. The city has so much to offer all types of people, but the deeply rooted history is what I love the most.
When people come to visit you in Memphis, what are some must-see places you always take them?
For everyone who comes to visit me in Memphis, I have to take them to Davies Plantation near Lakeland. It’s beautiful out there. Of course, we have to go to The Civil Rights Museum because of the history, and then we always end at Chef Tam’s Underground Café.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I’m an introvert, and face-to-face interactions are kind of hard for me. I’m grateful for opportunities, but when I have to talk about myself or be out there, it’s not always comfortable for me. My son loves it though. He always says, “My mom is famous!”
What are you most proud of when it comes to your accomplishments?
It has nothing to do with food, but everything to do with food. I just got married, but for 14 years of my son’s life, I raised him as a single mother. I’m proud that I’ve been able to show him what going after your dreams looks like … even if you’re afraid. That’s what I am most proud of.
Also, right when I started cooking full-time in November my father passed away six weeks later. He was a chef. It was like I stopped doing hair and just walked right into his field. It’s my dream and goal to always make him proud. Interestingly enough, my restaurant sits on the corner of Young and Bruce, and Bruce happens to be my father’s first name. Even if I ever quit cooking, I would keep this space, with the thought “Look, Dad! Look what I did in honor of you.”
You mention your father a lot. What’s the best advice you received from him?
Be a leader. You don’t have to be a follower. When I was younger, my dad would get on me and say, “You’re a leader. You don’t follow anyone else.” Everything that I do, I do it on a grand scale because I know that’s how he would have wanted it.
What are three things you can’t live without, besides faith, family and friends?
I cannot go without a good blanket, a good pair of comfortable socks — the kinds with the thick soles — and a nice bottle of perfume.
Thank you, Chef Tam. And thank you to Elizabeth Looney for the beautiful photos of Chef Tam in her restaurant.
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