EAT AND BE MERRY
“Growing up, my father was a jazz musician, and my mother was a cook, so my childhood was very fulfilling in both music and food. As an adult today I can see a lot of both of my parents, impact in my music and food.”
(Prologue: This interview was conducted 6 years ago, back in 2014 and was originally featured in print issue #38)
People probably know singer-songwriter Kelis best as the woman whose “milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.” And if food-related song titles have any bearing on one’s success, then her new album, aptly titled Food, is going to be the next big hit. Kelis’ sixth full-length studio album in total, the two-time Grammy nominee as well as NME, Brit, and Q Awards winner says a record like this has been in the works for a while now. “Every album that I’ve made as of yet has been from a period or place in my life,” she says. “So, for this album, I am really at peace with my life and being a mother.
It’s very much an album that I’ve been wanting to make for a long time, but, really, timing had to fit. The record was very organic. Naturally it just made sense.” Although the album has been in the works for some time, the actual cooking bug has been a part of her life for even longer. “Food has always been something that I’ve grown up around. My mother ran a catering company, and everything she would serve us would always be presented in a visually pleasing manner.”
In fact, cooking is so integral to Kelis that she, almost secretly, went to school to become a qualified chef after she made it big as a musician. “I went to culinary school and studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, which was a full-on course of around 9-hour days in the kitchen. I learned a lot from there… as well as growing up with my mother, which is where I first learned how to cook.” Kelis has also co-written a cookbook and designed her own line of fashion accessories entitled Cake. On top of that, she was even a guest on Top Chef Masters as a Quickfire judge. Kelis has also transitioned into becoming the host of a new show on the Cooking Channel called Saucy and Sweet, where the debut episode has her making jerk ribs. Coincidentally the first single to her new album is also called “Jerk Ribs.” Other cuisine-related titles on Food include “Breakfast,” “Cobbler,” “Biscuits and Gravy” and “Friday Fish Fry.”
One can immediately realize how she became the amalgamation chef/R&B artist that we see today, whose name is a combination of her parents Evelis and Kenneth, when asked if there are similarities between making music and cooking. “A few similarities is that they are both very personal. Growing up, my father was a jazz musician, and my mother was a cook, so my childhood was very fulfilling in both music and food. As an adult today I can see a lot of both of my parents’ impact in my music and food. For differences, I am not too sure here, as they have both been very fulfilling.”
Heritage also plays a large role in Kelis’ cooking and life. Born and raised in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem in New York City, she sang in church choirs and played the piano, saxophone and violin. “Being Puerto Rican and of Chinese decent, a lot of my mother’s cooking was strongly influenced by her roots, and I would say that that’s also shown in the way I cook; though more so in a fusion. Cooking for my son, I try to do the same in making food that is not only visually appealing but tastes delicious.”
When asked if she liked cooking or music better, it’s definitely a difficult decision for her. “That’s a hard choice. I truly love both. Food for me is such an enriching experience, shared with friends and family. And in the same ways so is music. Both have a wide outreach. Having a sauce line and music career enables me to share my food and music with others, which is very fulfilling.”
There is one thing Kelis can definitely say, and that is this: “My mother is the best cook I know, and that’s the one thing I can for sure say.” She continues, “I was interested in cooking at a young age. As I said, my mother owned a catering company and taught me how to cook. By far the best lessons I’ve learned have been from her, both in life and in food.” One of those lessons was getting kicked out of her parents’ house at the age of 16 while clashing with her mother. Soon after, she met Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
And speaking of having a sauce line, Kelis is definitely not messing around. “Well, I am a saucier, so sauce is my specialty. I believe that everything should be slathered in sauce.” Last year she introduced her signature sauce line at the Food and Wine Festival while also spending time in Malaysia and Bali and learning the basic French sauces like beurre blanc and bordelaise. When asked what her best sauce is, she can’t even pick a favorite. “All my sauces range, but it just depends on the sauce, really.” Besides the jerk sauce, which is a specialty, the line includes wild cherry barbecue and pineapple saffron.
Kelis’ team came up with an impressive marketing campaign at SXSW this past year in promoting the new album as she served up her own handmade dishes, including jerk ribs with barbeque sauce, duck confit sliders with a ginger sesame glaze, shredded beef sliders with wild cherry barbeque sauce and coleslaw. Fans of music as well as food at the event in Austin lined up for the free items. “SXSW was a really fun experience and my first time playing out there, so having the food truck was pretty much perfect timing around the album.”
With such a diverse and gourmet menu for her truck, I asked what Kelis’ perfect meal would be. “A big steak. I love meat, so the most perfect meal would be just that,” she replies, adding, “…with sauce, of course!” When asked if she would give it all up to run a food truck of her own someday, she says, “Maybe… I know that I would love to one day have my own restaurant. Though currently I have that line of sauces, which will come out this summer, called Feast.”
All of this isn’t to say that the creative process for Food was all related to eating. The album, out on Ninja Tune records (her first with the group) was produced by Dave Sitek, best known as the guitarist for TV on the Radio (who also signed her to his own label, Federal Prism). Kelis and Dave clicked while working in the studio. “Dave was perfect for creating this record. He naturally understood what we were making in the studio and was great about pushing me when I needed to be pushed and sitting back and letting me work.”
The resulting album is an emotional, honest and open record that emphasizes Kelis’ love for family, soul and obviously… food. In addition to highlights including the rising anthem “Forever Be,” the soothing ballad “Blown Away” and the 70s dance hit “Hooch,” Kelis does a quality cover of Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone” and ends the album on the beautiful and fitting song “Dreamer.” Her voice is arguably at its strongest because there is magnificence in the cracks. Compared to the vocal stylings of Christine McVie, Kelis’ stripped vocals weave ever so gracefully with the powerful accompanying music. Food is one of those records that, 20 years from now, people will be yearning to hear all the way through live. Words:Blake Garris