“We eat the same stuff. People think we’re so different, but we’re not”
In her singing career, Kelis has achieved the highest of highs. She’s sold over six million records worldwide. She has been nominated for a Grammy and her hit songs like “Milkshake” and “Caught Out There” have endured like the still-edible honey found in the Egyptian tombs.
But Kelis’ career low came in 2006, when her then-record label, Jive, tried to wrest control of her career and she received no label support for her album, Kelis Was Here. Dissatisfied with the music industry, she decided to take some time off to return to her original love: cooking. Kelis enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, graduating in 2010.
Now a certified chef, Kelis released her first cookbook last year, My Life on a Plate: Recipes from Around the World, which earned her a reputation as a chef with a broad palate, and her pop-up in London with burgermeisters Le Bun was similarly well received. She even named her acclaimed 2014 album Food (Ninja Tune).
November 4-6, Kelis will curate Taste Talks Los Angeles, a food conference and festival. The three day chew-a-palooza at the Line Hotel in Koreatown will feature tastings, demos, talks, and a big finale barbecue.
Leading up to Taste Talks, you can catch Kelis chatting with James Beard award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster) and food historian Lara Rabinovitch, Ph.D, at the Skirball Cultural Center on November 2.
We picked Kelis’ mind about Taste Talks, her experiences as a chef, and her upcoming episode of “Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party.”
You’re curating Taste Talks and it looks incredible. I’ve never seen a food festival lineup that included Ari Taymor, Baroo, and DJ Mustard on equal footing. What was it like digging into the Los Angeles foodie scene?
LA has got such a distinct tone and flavor to it that you know for me that was exciting. I’m a New Yorker, but I’ve been out here for a long time now. LA is recognizable for what it is. And so, just wanting to showcase that in the best possible light. I think picking the best of the best from all different kinds of corners makes it really exciting.
Did you have a philosophy behind what you wanted the Taste Talks to include?
Whenever my Mom comes out to LA, she’s always like, ‘Ah, there’s no culture.’ I thought that too when I first moved out here years ago. And it wasn’t until you move here that you realize it’s actually the total opposite. It’s just that LA is spread out. If you stick to Hollywood or Beverly Hills, you’re going to think there’s no culture. But I live on the east side and I have an Indian market where I can get straight-up amazing Indian spices; there’s a Korean market; there’s a Filipino market; there’s an Albanian market; and there’s a Cuban market—all literally within ten minutes of my house. So, when people say there’s no culture I’m like, ‘Hmm, that’s actually not true.’ It’s just that they’re in these spread-out pockets, and you have to know where to go. That was really important to showcase—the Latin and the Asian influences here.
You grew up in Harlem, your father was black, your mother was a chef, and I read that she was of Puerto Rican and Chinese descent. Can you talk about the mixture of cultures in your early food experiences?
My mom, she was born in New York, so we were always American first. But her being a chef, her palate and her mind were super open. And my dad was a musician, so he traveled. Food from all over was central in my upbringing. Just being in Harlem, there was some of the best Caribbean food that I’ve ever had. There’s amazing Dominican and Puerto Rican food. We’re in New York, so we’d go down to Little Italy and go to Queens for Indian food and go to Alphabet City for Polish food. This tiny little island was a mecca for so many things. When I started traveling in the beginning of my career, I was already down to try stuff and I was never weirded out, because nothing was weird to me.
Your cookbook has Puerto Rican dishes, but then there’s also Malay curry chicken, Swedish meatballs, and beef & pineapple. Obviously, some of these recipes are from experiencing these cultures when you’re growing up and some of them are from traveling. Do you think traveling and eating food from other cultures is a good way to start some kind of cultural understanding between cultures?
A thousand percent. Being an artist, first of all—it’s funny—we’re narcissistic by nature. If you’re going be any good, you have to focus on yourself, you have to think about yourself, you have to talk about yourself, you have to express yourself. It’s the most self-centered position, to be a creative person. Not in a terrible way, but that’s how you’re best.
When I started traveling, that was my time to like look outside of me. My mom used to make bacalaítos or papas rellenas, and here I am in a far-off land and I’m like, ‘This totally reminds me of what I used to get from 109th Street and 3rd Ave.’ I won’t be anywhere near Puerto Rico, and yet we’re eating the same thing.
That was such an eye-opening realization: the more I traveled, the more I realized how similar we are. People always say that music is the international language—food is even more. Food changes how people live, how they think, and how they relate to each other. Most cultures that eat spicy foods are in hot places. That’s just a fact. If you go to Sweden or Germany and ask for hot sauce, they will bring you mustard. They don’t sweat when they eat. You go to Jamaica or Kuala Lumpur and you’re going to get something spicy. They’re going to put a bunch of different chilies in it, and they’re going to sweat.
But when I say that we’re all the same, we eat the same. If you go to Nigeria, you’ll eat jollof rice; if you go to Spain, you’ll eat paella; if you go to China, in certain parts, you’re going to eat fried rice; and if you go to Puerto Rico, you’re going to get arroz con gandules. It’s all the same thing: flavored, colored rice with stuff in it. Or dumplings or gyoza or empanadas or pierogi or—it’s endless. We eat the same stuff. People think we’re so different, but we’re not.
And then on top of that, look at how food surrounds every major monumental event in every culture. Weddings, a funeral, a graduation—food. When you go on a date, you go out to eat. It’s the center of our world. It’s such a nice way to tap into human nature, and who we are, and how we relate, and it’s never boring to me.
I don’t want to ask you to be a mouthpiece or anything like that, but as a woman of color, I wonder if you’re sensitive to how women of color are represented in the restaurant industry. Do you think there’s room for change there?
To be honest with you, I might be ignorant to the fact, but I don’t even know that we are represented. As far as in restaurants, I think that it’s so few and far between, black women don’t get proper representation at all.
The fact that I’ve been asked more than one time, ‘Well, hey, do you make soul food?,’ that’s pretty mind blowing. That’s outrageous, honestly. No one would ever ask Bobby Flay or Mario Batali, ‘You’re American, do you make American food?’ No one would have the gall.
I thought my biggest struggle was going to be because I was a singer first—and there are people who will doubt me because of that—but I have more pushback on the fact that I’m black than anything else. And not about the fact that I can’t cook, but that I can’t cook anything other than soul food.
And that’s funny to me because that’s interesting because I went to the same French school that everyone else went to. And I have been to so many places, so why would soul food be the first thing that you go to? That’s insane. I’m like, ‘I actually have a very interesting palate.’
Also, who doesn’t like soul food!? What person would think that I don’t enjoy it? It’s American food. White people eat just as much soul food as black people do. Like if you really want to break it down, go down South. There is no distinction.
I definitely think that there’s an issue, but I think that it can change. I don’t get mad about it. I laugh about it, and I’m just like, ‘Okay, well, you’re really going to enjoy this Japanese yam and rice cake I just pulled together, because that’s going to blow you away.’ Let’s open our mouths, and our minds, to something that might come in a different package.
Bounty & Full is your sauce line. You have mix of things from wild cherry barbecue sauce, cranberry mandarin jam, jerk sauce, and pineapple saffron glaze—what is the secret for you to a Bounty & Full sauce?
I usually make sauces based off a need in my household: ‘What do we need?’ Then I fall in love with the different colors and textures. We roast pork here all the time, because my husband is Puerto Rican and I’m Puerto Rican and Chinese, and those are the largest pig-eating people. We need something to dip in, so what are we going to do? Or I make an ahi, and that’s going to have a new sauce that I’m introducing to the Bounty & Full line. But it comes from: this is what I want to taste, and it doesn’t exist in the market exactly like this, so let me make something that I can put my integrity behind.
I noticed on your Twitter that you took a selfie with Martha, Snoop, and Fat Joe. I think Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg make a really great pairing to bring food to a really broad audience. What can we expect from your episode of Martha and Snoop?
I think it was one of the first ones that they were taping. It’s obviously not a real cooking show. It’s not taking it too seriously. It’s entertaining. Just seeing the two of them together is funny.