Twisted Soul owner, head chef expresses love of cooking

Students are seen waiting in line for Twisted Soul’s signature noodle bowl and bubble tea during rush hour. By the time this photo was taken, the cupcake platter was already empty./ Courtesy of Andrea Yang

“The Vassar bubble” is a ubiquitous phrase for a good reason. With courses and many other obligations, students rarely find the chance to leave the confines of the campus, resulting in a disconnect between Vassar and the community. By casting a spotlight on local businesses, this article hopes to break the pattern and foster closer relationships between students and the larger Poughkeepsie area.

This week, I decided to highlight one of my favorite places to blow through my semester allowance of Arlington Bucks: Twisted Soul. If you’ve ever seen the lines at Tasty Tuesday or walked all the way off campus for one of their bubble teas, then you know Twisted Soul is an integral part of the Vassar experience.

On a sunny afternoon, I sat down with owner and head chef Ira Lee to discuss the restaurant’s history and inspiration. Long before conceiving the concept of Twisted Soul, Lee grew up loving to cook. He explained: “Honestly, since I was in elementary school, I’ve been interested in food. I had my little candy business, and I sold Italian ice and Kool-Aid outside my house—people used to come and knock on my door.”

After spending some time serving in the Marine Corps, Lee moved to the Hudson Valley in order to study at The Culinary Institute of America. Once he graduated, he decided to take some time to travel around the world. Inspired by these unique experiences, Lee began to refine and create his own unique palette—a sort of global spin on soul food.

Finally, in 2007, Lee and his wife Brenda opened Twisted Soul at its first location on Main Street in Poughkeepsie. Due to technical difficulties, however, the couple could not get a mechanical fan, which hangs over a stove in order to evacuate fumes and smoke. Lee had to think fast, saying, “I kept the name, and a newborn concept was made. Steamed rice didn’t need a hood, empanadas only needed the oven, dumplings only needed the steamer, and salads were cold. That’s how all of these concepts came together, from [my] sort of being backed into a corner.”

The chef’s quick thinking paid off, especially after Twisted Soul moved to its current location on Raymond Avenue in 2008. Lee described the dramatic difference in business: “Without Vassar we wouldn’t be here! On Main Street, the most we’d get is 10 people a day…I never imagined that it would blow up like this.” He continued, “I think now after 10 years [our main clientele] is still 60 to 70 percent the College.”

While Twisted Soul’s relationship to Vassar has been nothing but successful, Lee explained that the rapport has been more of a gradual process with the larger Poughkeepsie community. He stated, “Over the years, the community has come out…It can be a little intimidating not knowing the menu, but it’s been a learning process for both of us.”

With just the support of Vassar students, however, the restaurant’s newfound success has been so significant that four months ago, Lee and his wife decided to open a second location.

Situated directly across the street from the original eatery, La Cafeteria is best described as an à la carte lunch spin-off of the Twisted Soul we all know and love. Lee gave a quick rundown of what one could find there on any given day: “It usually has three proteins—so salmon, short-rib,

tofu—and sides that go with it—quinoa, coconut sweet potatoes. We call it La Cafeteria because we went out and bought these silver cafeteria trays that the food is served on.”

The chef revealed that the business has certainly had its fair share of difficulties. He noted, “Our challenge is just always trying to keep the high level. Everyone that walks into a restaurant is a critic, which means that it doesn’t matter what they eat, what day it is—if this person had a bad day and someone forgot the sugar, it’s online.” Lee tries his best to avoid looking at apps like Yelp. Whether his restaurant is garnering positive or negative reviews, Lee prefers to stay focused on what he loves most: making great food.

Besides the tasty empanadas and award-winning cupcakes, the restaurant’s atmosphere is always permeated by a feeling of camaraderie and warmth. Lee stressed, “This is not being done without my team, and they understand that. Me and my wife a hundred percent appreciate our team, and we don’t have a high turnover because of that…it’s a family environment.”

To close out our interview, I asked Lee the question to which we’re all eager to know the answer: out of the whole Twisted Soul menu, what is his favorite dish? After some thinking, he replied: “One is the ‘Bad Ass Rice’—that’s original! The other one is the Fried Chicken Noodle Bowl, which is popular with Vassar.”

Twisted Soul provides a convenient alternative to our Deece routine as well as a chance to get off campus. The life stories of the people behind the creation and preparation of the food add another layer of flavor to the dining experience.

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