Singer-turned-chef Kelis pops up in London restaurant
In a collaboration with chef duo Le Bun, Kelis Rogers turns her talents to food after training at Cordon Bleu
In a cramped kitchen off London’s Leicester Square, Kelis Rogers is shredding herbs into a vast saucepan where kilos of pork flank simmer away. Behind her three whole pineapples blacken over open coals and a pan bubbling with guava and ginger fills the kitchen with a sweet steamy fragrance. She pauses to inhale the colliding aromas for a moment, then turns her attention to throwing handfuls of turmeric into a blender.
Yet immaculate white apron aside, Rogers is no ordinary chef. Most know her simply as Kelis, the New York-born singer who has sold six million records around the world, won a Brit award in 2001 for best international newcomer, been nominated for a Grammy and collaborated with Björk. And while it is her hit single Milkshake that notoriously brings all the boys to the yard, after taking a hiatus from music to train at the prestigious Cordon Bleu cookery school in 2008, her culinary repertoire now extends well beyond ice-cream-based drinks.
Indeed, cooking is now so much of a passion for Rogers that she is opening a pop-up restaurant in London for the first time in July, collaborating with the cooking duo Le Bun. She will then take her cuisine on the road, serving it up at festivals around the UK.
“I cook like my character – it’s loud and colourful and really in-your-face,” says Rogers, as she flits about the kitchen stirring and sprinkling. “But keeping things super balanced, bringing together flavours I’ve experienced from all over the world, is what I think makes me stand out as a chef.”
Having spent 20 years in music, Rogers admitted she gets a very different kind of joy when cooking for people from singing for them. She says: “It is totally different. I really do feel that music is a very selfish thing. I’ve always made music very specifically for myself. The fact that it has been a success for me is really God-given because I could not care less what people like.”
She adds: “There’s also something aggressive about music – it attacks your ears even when you don’t want to listen – whereas food is the total opposite. Food is a choice and I think because of that, there’s a certain level of respect that has to go into it.”
Rogers developed the menu for her Soho pop-up over three days with Andy Taylor, one half of Le Bun. Rather than opting for a single style of cuisine, the plates and ingredients nods both to Kelis’s own Caribbean and American heritage, and the hundreds of dishes and styles she experienced travelling the world, having spent “the best part of 20 years on tour”.
Rogers will be cooking up her own take on the arepas of Venezuela and Vietnamese meatballs bánh mì, and experimenting with the pineapple and yucca beloved of Caribbean cuisine. Her menu also features pork infused with both Asian and Puerto Rican flavours, Latin American-style seabass ceviche, a new take on southern staple cornbread and chilli and even burgers laced with truffle mayo, the speciality of her collaborators Le Bun.
On the plates, the dishes are a clash of oranges, greens, pinks and rich brown. “I just love colours in food,” she says. “I’m always drawn to the purple potatoes and the speckled yams, all those strange bright fruits and I love that I can incorporate all these things into my menu. I’ve even found a special purple masa [maize] to make the arepas, which is just beautiful. It’s just fun – literally all things that I love and that I want in my life.”
Growing up with a mother who ran a catering business in Harlem, food was always a central part of Rogers’ life. However, having signed her first record deal at 17, she spent the next 10 years on an “unstoppable treadmill” of the music industry. After fighting to get off her music label for four years, Rogers was finally released from her contract in 2008. Sitting alone in her kitchen one Friday, she phoned up the Cordon Bleu who told her the next course was starting on Monday. She signed up immediately.
“Cooking school revolutionised everything in my life,” she says. “I had spent four years tied to a label I hated, which was like an arranged marriage. I felt exhausted, under-appreciated and really disrespected and it sucked. And then all of a sudden, I realised I could walk away from music and my life won’t shatter.”
Given the choice, after graduating from Cordon Bleu Rogers would have thrown herself fully into the world of food. However, in 2009, when pregnant with her first child, she divorced her then husband, the rapper Nas.
“Everything turned upside down and I didn’t know how to support myself through food yet, so I had to go back to what I knew, which was music,” she says. “And it was kind of heartbreaking – I couldn’t even bear to watch any cooking shows.” The singer’s longing to return to cooking was even reflected in the tracklisting of her 2010 album Food, which featured songs such as Breakfast, Jerk Ribs, Cobbler and Biscuits and Gravy.
Yet six years on and the culinary side of Rogers’ life is gaining momentum, while she admits her music, which still takes her around the world,is currently on “autopilot”. As well as the London pop-up and the UK festival food truck this summer, she has a cookbook and her own rage of sauces in America – and her ambitions are still expanding.
“I want a farm where I can grow my own ingredients and have control over the whole process,” she says. “And yeah, for sure, one day I’d love to have my own restaurant.”
Kelis x Le Bun will be at Leicester House, London WC2, on 6-17 July, and at Standon Calling, Hertfordshire, from 29 to 31 July.