Sandwiched between a kitchen counter and a mad-scientist lab of stews and sauces, Kelis is hunched over a small pyramid of yucca root, inspecting it like a jeweler would examine a diamond. She’s seven and a half months pregnant with her second son and brutally jetlagged—she’s just returned from a three-day food tour of Taipei—but she wants to make sure the yucca attains the perfect level of crispiness before it becomes her version of poutine, the Canadian french fry dish, that will accompany an oxtail stew boiling behind her.
“You know in Australia they do it with kangaroo tail?” she tells Jonah Eagan, executive sous chef at New York’s Soho House, who’s helping Kelis get ready for a 60-person dinner there the following night to celebrate her new cookbook, My Life on a Plate. Kangaroo is lean like venison or moose, she says, but it’s hardly the most exotic meat Kelis has eaten in her world travels—that would be seal, which she warns is “awful.” She’s here a day early going over the five-course menu, loosely based off recipes from her book, because she has a Barnes & Noble event right before the meal and didn’t want to leave all the prep work up to the staff. Not that Kelis doesn’t trust them—she just likes to be hands on. If she didn’t have to spend the whole day promoting her cookbook, she says, she’d stay in the kitchen and do as much as she could herself. Kelis turns around to season the oxtail, while Eagan goes to show her some of the garden herbs they’ll be using, per her request. “I’m like, ‘I want to see them myself!’” she says, letting out a smokey, staccato laugh. “I like control.”
That shouldn’t be a surprise coming from a singer who once wrote an entire song about how bossy she is, but it does set her apart from empire-building celebrity multi-hyphenates. While many musicians and actors lend their names to clothing lines and fragrances they have little hand in designing, Kelis differs from many celebrity food personalities in that she’s a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef who worked in restaurant kitchens both before and after starting her recording career. “I have seven albums under my belt and I’ve never felt so accomplished,” says Kelis, whose hair is dyed a fiery reddish-orange hue that matches her nails. “It’s funny, though, because even having gone to school and having done everything that every other trained chef has done, people still want to question or discredit [me] or make it like, ‘Oh, cute!’”
With paragraphs of personal stories accompanying each recipe, My Life On a Plate often resembles a memoir through which readers can piece together the singer-turned-chef’s biography. Born Kelis Rogers to a black musician father and a Chinese-Puerto Rican mother who had her own catering business, she grew up in Harlem surrounded by food. She’d spend her her summers in Puerto Rico and her Sundays eating pierogies on the Lower East Side after church. Before the LaGuardia High School graduate signed a record deal as a teenager, she worked in a Malaysian restaurant Penang (which inspired the book’s pineapple beef recipe) and spent many late nights at Mamoun’s Falafel (which led to her spinach chickpea fritters). She includes recipes for the pomegranate-caramel donuts and tuna melts favored by Knight, her son with ex-husband Nas, as well as the Colombian arepas she picked up from her new husband (whom she doesn’t mention by name in the book). There are no milkshake recipes, but her goat cheese ice cream will bring anyone to the yard.
Kelis got serious about food after butting heads with her record label during the making of her 2006 album Kelis Was Here, a tasting menu of pop, hip-hop and R&B. Burnt out on the music industry and convinced she’d never make an album again, she filled her free time by enrolling at a Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Los Angeles, where she now lives. “I’m an all or nothing person anyway,” she says, “so if I’m going to do something, I feel like I should really do it. I don’t like pussyfooting around.”
Culinary school is not for dilettantes, anyway. It’s a full-time, months-long commitment during which students are frequently tested with both written and practical kitchen evaluations. Kelis describes a week devoted to cooking eggs as “treacherous.” Her class started with about 30 people, she says, and finished with close to half that many. Unlike most of her classmates, Kelis wasn’t already working in the food and restaurant industry, which contributed to a “healthy” amount of competition. It also meant she sometimes butted heads with her instructors, who weren’t always fans of the techniques she acquired over the years. “I had this fishing box of my equipment and would come to class, and chefs were like, ‘No no no’, and I was like, ‘Oh yes yes yes,’” she remembers. “They want you to learn the way they want you to learn.”
She started another album after culinary school, 2010’s dance-oriented Flesh Tone, but admits now that her heart wasn’t entirely in it. “It made me really sad,” she says. “I’ve never actually ever said this aloud. I felt like I was so not doing what I was supposed to be doing. I felt like I was not being true to myself, or wasting all the effort that I put in by not doing something food-related.” She couldn’t stand to watch food shows on TV, though she eventually got one herself, Saucy & Sweet, which aired on the Cooking Channel.
Kelis made up for her time away by booking gigs in far-off locations “that made no sense career-wise,” turning tour dates into her own personal food tours of places like Beirut and Kuala Lumpur. In 2011, she lived in Spain for nine months because she plays Europe so frequently that it makes more sense for her to stay on the continent instead flying back and forth. “[My shows] are all pretty freaking random at this point,” she says. “Like a set that starts at 3 a.m. in Dusseldorf. Why is this happening? This is ridiculous!”
She’s currently working on getting her sauce line into grocery stories, and she’s also started writing new music, though she cautions that a new album is still a few years away. Last year she released Food, a vintage soul throwback produced by Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) that better combined her passions with song titles like “Jerk Ribs.” (The recipe that inspired it is included in My Life on a Plate.) The next record will probably sound nothing like it. “I’m not good with sequels,” she says. When I half-jokingly suggest that she record a punk album next, Kelis is surprisingly game. “That’d be really fun,” she answers. “Dave Sitek would be the perfect person to do that, so that’s not far-fetched. It could totally happen.”
For now, she’s focused on getting her cookbook out into the world so she can finish the rest of her pregnancy somewhere other than a bustling kitchen. Kelis says her publisher gave her only a month to make the cookbook, which left her whipping almost a dozen dishes a day and struggling to meet the deadline, even after she was granted a three week extension. (She’s since met cookbook authors who had almost a year to assemble theirs. “That’s freaking luxurious!” she says.) But for Kelis, the real challenge wasn’t the number of recipes, or even committing them to writing as a chef who prefers to cook from “common sense” instead of instructions.
“It was having to relinquish power to give to someone else,” she says. “I just want it to be right.”