5 Star Stories: The history and flavors behind restaurateur Chef Tam

Published: Apr. 19, 2022 at 12:56 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - She’s had a number of jobs throughout the years -- but food has always been her first love and now she’s one of this city’s most popular restaurateurs and a Food Network pro. We’re talking about the owner of “Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe,” who recently became the first Memphian to be a Food Network “Chopped” Champion. This 5 Star story shows you how she’s turning her passion for family and food into a growing food empire.

Many of you are already familiar with Chef Tam, whose full name is Tamra Patterson -- a Fort Worth, Texas native. She describes the food she creates and makes as, “most definitely a soul food fusion. It’s a love affair with Cajun food and just downright Southern Soul food.”

Tamra said she came to Memphis in 2015 on a spiritual mission.

“I came here with a friend to do some ministry work about seven years ago and decided to stay,” she said. But, in 2017, after her food services job at a Memphis charter school fell through, Tamra decided to take a shot in a small Cooper-Young house.

“I literally bowed my head, in front of the building before I went in, and I said, ‘God, I know that the bible says the wicked ask for a sign. I don’t want you to think I’m being wicked, but I need a sign,’” she recalled.

And when she said, “Amen” and opened her eyes, she got her sign.

“The street sign was Bruce, which is my dad’s name,” she added.

But, with no job and money being tight, she needed financial assistance to open the restaurant. So, she phoned a friend for $1,100, which was a month’s rent.

“And she said, ‘I can’t give you rent money -- because God told me to give you $5,000 for a restaurant,’ and that was the exact amount of money I needed for the building,” Tamra exclaimed.

And so began Chef Tam’s first restaurant, “Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe” at the corner of Young and Bruce, and people began to notice and call.

“When the lady says, ‘This is such and so from the Food Network and I am a producer on the show,’ I was like, ‘Shut up,’” Tamra laughingly explained.

Now, she is a firm believer in speaking things into existence because as she puts it, “Whatever you speak over yourself is what is going to happen. It might have been 11 years ago, I tweeted, ‘I’m Betty Crocker, Jr. The next Food Network Star’ and they’re going to come looking for me.”

And they did, not long after she opened her first restaurant. Chef Tam’s first Food Network appearance was on “Guy’s Grocery Games,” and although she was up against James Beard winners and Michelin star chefs -- she won!

“And so I went on the show and it was so hilarious. I’ve never done anything like this in my life! And I’m sitting there, completely un-classically trained,” said Chef Tam.

Maybe she’s not classically trained, but the food is in her blood.

“My dad was a chef. His mom was a baker, and then my mom’s father owned a restaurant,” she elaborated.

Even as an international celebrity hairstylist, food was in her dreams -- literally.

“In 2010, I was a hairstylist, thriving, had a very lucrative career and I kept having recipe dreams,” she said, adding that she had to follow those dreams whether or not she had a restaurant. “I didn’t have a restaurant. I was cooking at home. Seven years of cooking out of my house. My goal every day, Miss Kym, was to sell 10 plates a day, at $10 a plate.”

Chef Tam went on to compete in two more “Grocery Games” in 2018 and 2019, as well as OWN’s “Great American Cookout” in 2020. She has recently crowned a Food Network “Chopped” Champion in an episode that was shot in October of 2021 and aired on April 5, 2022 -- competing against four other chefs and bringing home the $10,000 prize.

As for her restaurant business, after three years at the Cooper-Young location, Chef Tam closed it down and opened a larger facility with a retail store at 668 Union Avenue near downtown Memphis. That was just three months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when she had to shut down her dining room for a year and half. But, rather than giving up, Tamra said he got even more creative with her recipes and “to go” orders -- just to stay top of mind and encourage people to continue buying her food.

Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe is now once again fully open. In February of 2022, she took what she learned about “to go” orders from the pandemic back to her home state of Texas, and opened up “Chef Tam’s Express” in Arlington not far from where she grew up.

That restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday and so far, she says it’s been doing phenomenally well.

“It is so much fun to see people that I grew up with. We already have regulars that come in every week, twice a week,” she said.

And despite Chef Tam’s Twitter post and her newfound fame, celebrity was never really a part of her plan when she started selling plates out of her home or opened her first restaurant.

“I literally started Chef Tam’s underground Café in Cooper Young because I had a son to feed. It wasn’t about I wanna make a name for myself, it wasn’t about I make the best chicken, I make the best this. It was just I can cook, I can sell some plates, let’s do this!” Chef Tam explained.

You might wonder how a Texas native by way of Memphis has such a flair for Cajun flavors -- well, maybe it’s genetics.

“If you’ve ever been to Chef Tam’s underground café in Memphis you know that I’m all about my family and my family history,” she said. “I have a massive family tree of my family up on the wall. I am completely intrigued by the history of my family. It is so interesting that I find out that history finds its way back to you. I never knew I had so much family from Louisiana but I knew what kind of food I liked.”

As for the future, Chef Tam has plans -- and tenacity.

“If it’s a business, if it’s a land, if it’s property -- anywhere my family was owned, I’m gonna own. I just feel like that is my family’s retribution,” she said.

So, look out Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia -- Chef Tam may be coming there soon.

“I’m a fighter if I’m nothing else and sometimes a fight is just getting up. Imma keep getting up no matter what happens -- Imma keep getting up,” she promised.

If you’re in the market for food flair of your own, Chef Tam’s retail store in the Memphis and Arlington, Texas restaurants carries more than 100 products like her spice creations, hot and tartar sauces, ketchup and cookware, as well as “Bruce’s Juice” lemonades and teas, which are named after her father. And don’t be surprised if you see Chef Tam on your television screens again sometime, soon.

We’ll keep you posted. For more information about Chef Tam, visit www.thecheftam.com/.

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