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My life in food: Kelis on how food has shaped her life

The singer-turned-chef talks about her Puerto Rican roots, food culture becoming sexy and the things she learned at culinary school

By Farida Zeynalova
Published 3 May 2019, 11:13 BST
Photograph by David Loftus

People say music is the international language, but I think it’s food. Think about it, everybody has a dumpling situation, whether it’s a pierogi, empanada, samosa, gyoza or moin moin. Everybody has a dough that’s either fried, steamed or baked with something delicious inside. Once you think of it like that, it breaks down the barriers we put up.

I’m really texture-sensitive. Take okra. I understand how healthy it is and what it represents culturally, so I’ll cook it and do it well — but it’s revolting. I also don’t like anything gummy, like abalone. It’s gross. When I go to high-end restaurants, I’m like: why have you given me a rubber band that tastes like fish?

Training at Le Cordon Bleu was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I grew up watching my mum cook, but I didn’t know what to expect in culinary school. It helped me cultivate my voice and figure out things about myself. As a musician, going to school [graduating in 2008] and figuring out that I could thrive at something else brought back music for me; I recognised I could do it because I love it and not because I had to, and I can do other things that I love equally.

I didn’t realise how culturally Puerto Rican I was until I really started cooking. It’s the best in Latin food. It’s flavourful and diverse, with indigenous, African and Hispanic influences, and it reminds me of who I am. To graduate from culinary school, I had to make a dish that exemplified who I was, and I made alcapurria [fritters] — something I grew up eating; every region of the island has its own version. My mum [who’s half Puerto Rican, half Chinese] was a chef and had her own catering business, so I started helping out really early. Seeing how precise and graceful she was enthralled me.

The food world — and the culture of food — has changed; it’s become sexy. We’ve never had so many food documentaries with people under the age of 50 watching them. And it’s not just the competitions, but shows paying homage to great artists. I think that’s changed how people see food. People are more experimental. Everyone thinks they’re an expert now, but 99% of them are not.

Food goes through trends like everything else. People get stuck on one ingredient and every restaurant has it — it’s annoying. There’s a brussels sprout explosion that’s been going for the past two years. And then kale came and it’s kale everything. Then there was a moment with squash blossom. Get over it. All these things are delicious, but it’s a lack of innovation.

I love Polish food. You don’t think about Eastern Europe for wonderful food, but that’s just because we haven’t been educated on it. New York has a big Polish community, and after church my mum would take us to the Lower East Side to a place called Teresa’s where we’d get things like pierogis, kielbasas, latkes and blintzes.

I don’t really drink milkshake. Imagine me going somewhere and ordering a milkshake! It’s just too much. I’ll take a cold-pressed juice any day.

Kelis’s book, My Life on a Plate: Recipes From Around the World, is out now (£19.99, Kyle Books). Her range of sauces, Bounty and Full, is available online.

Interview by Farida Zeynalova.

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food

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