Chef Amanda Yee views food through a political and cultural lens. She is passionate about the ways in which meals can build cross cultural understanding, community, and movements–a sentiment she credits to her Oakland, CA roots.
“The Bay Area is its own animal,” Yee says. “What shaped my food perspective was farm to table, the social justice aspect of feeding people, food and politics. The Black Panthers were very political with projects such as the free breakfast program. [Chef] Alice Waters started the Slow Foods Movement in the Bay Area. Food and politics intersect quite naturally for me.”
An alum of Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, Chef Amanda Yee has explored many paths in the food world: popsicle company owner, supper club hostess, food stylist, and recipe developer. She contributed to James Beard award-winning chef Bryant Terry’s cookbook Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed. Recently, Yee released her own work, Friends: The Official Cookbook.
Six years ago, she decided to move abroad and launch a Southern restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. In an era in which Black people are looking outside the United States for peace, safety, and joy, Chef Amanda Yee’s choice is particularly relevant. It was wonderful to speak with her about her experience as a Black woman expat, chef, and entrepreneur.
Interview with Chef Amanda Yee
When did you start cooking, and what made you fall in love with it?
It was never a matter of falling in love with it. It was more of a tool for building community. I have a Sociology degree in Critical Race Theory and World Studies from Westmount College in Santa Barbara. I understand the connection between food and people. Everyone eats.
I really enjoyed your Whetstone article “Black Dinners Matter” in which you discuss the long legacy of food, especially shared meals, as being a source of self-determination for Black Americans.
I often think about the Black church’s use of meals as an opportunity to build the case for civil rights. Those gatherings served as a place for community.
That is very true. Since entering the food world, you have experienced many different roles. What has been your favorite?
I like curating the best. Maybe you are inspired by purple sweet potatoes at the farmer’s market. Based on that piece of produce, you start conceptualizing a dinner party: how to bring people together, make sure they are enjoying each other. How do you add to that? The food, the music playlist, having the drink complement the meal, deciding who sits next to whom.
What kind of party would you curate based on purple sweet potatoes?
We can do a Prince vs. David Bowie dinner party. Use all purple food, have a space theme in honor of David Bowie.
Chef Amanda Yee’s Big Move
In 2015, you moved from Oakland, CA to Copenhagen, Denmark. Can you talk about what inspired that move?
I’ve always been ahead of my time. I remember reading James Baldwin’s works, how he describes moving to Paris to catch his breath. There would always be these glass ceilings. I could never move from being good to great in America.
The U.S. is intrinsically, systematically racist. Europe had a type of racism that I could skirt around. I could go to a bank and get a bank loan. Europe is very racist but because they value Black Americans we have social capital. They will discriminate against Turkish people. They are very Islamophobic there. But Black people have a cool factor. We are untouchable in a way.
How has living in Copenhagen impacted the way you think about food?
Danish people love trying new foods but they are very classist. They believe that the New Nordic cuisine is the epitome of food. Danish chefs like René Redzepi, [co-owner of two Michelin star restaurant Noma], are celebrated.
Are Danish people familiar with Black American food?
Of course! A lot of them travel to New Orleans. If I talk to them about Black food, they’ll say, “You mean food like in New Orleans?”
However, in Denmark itself, it is a different story. I am constantly in search of seasonal American Black food that is not regulated to KFC.
How do you personally define Black food?
I often think of a quote from Amanda Seales: “EVERY Black experience is a Black experience UNLESS it is ANTI-Black.”
For me, I’m Black everywhere I go. So, Blackness to me is the freedom to be. That’s how I would define Black food.
I love that your recent restaurant venture in Copenhagen, The Blues Woman, was an ode to the legacy of Southern Black women. Can you talk more about this?
I started working on The Blues Woman in 2017. I had two horrible Danish business partners who mismanaged it administratively and financially. They ran the idea into the ground.
She was my baby. It felt like not being able to carry a baby to term. I was working on it 80 hours a week. It was taking time away from my ability to build community. I decided to move on. I want to hold my passion sacred.
All About The Food
Even though you are no longer working on the restaurant, I am sure you are still very much inspired by food. What are the five must-have ingredients you always have in your kitchen?
I always like to pickle green tomatoes and preserve lemons. I always have a bottle of BBQ sauce. I also keep Lap Cheong [Chinese] sausage and a coffee rub I like to put on lamb legs and roast. I would be a vegetarian if it weren’t for lamb.
What tip would you give to home cooks who want to improve their skills?
Don’t follow a recipe. Use your intuition. It is all about vibrational cooking. Just flow with it. A pinch and a pop. Listen to the food. Taste it with your whole body. It will tell you if it needs more salt or needs to cook more. When it’s done, it’s done.
What is your favorite dish to cook at home?
A bowl of Cinnamon toast crunch with oat milk. I don’t like to cook at home. However, tomorrow I’m getting ingredients for baghrir, these Moroccan pancakes.
What is something you can eat every day?
American Cantonese Chinese food from the Bay. I could eat dim sum from Tao Yuen Pastry on Franklin and Oak Street everyday.
What is your dream food destination?
Everywhere I go has to have surfing and food. I’m currently planning this trip to Japan. I want to have ramen, sushi, and street food. Go to all the districts and places. Try all the food.
Who do you look up to in the food world?
Bryant Terry for 10 or 11 days. I love that dude. He is my brother and my boss and my mentor and my friend.
Honestly, I don’t look up to anyone much. I’m not interested in food anymore. I know I stand on the shoulders of greatness. The idea of looking up is hierarchical. So many people are doing amazing things, go ’head!
I like how you phrased that. Now that you are no longer an active chef, what are you doing careerwise?
I am a person driven by the moment. I have a degree in English, so I am working as a copywriter for an ad company. I love it. I never feel pressure from writing. I don’t stay up at night thinking about writing the perfect writing. That wasn’t the case with food.
Are you working on any new projects that you would like to share?
Yes, a Black food cookbook. Bryant Terry and I are curating it. It has art, essays, recipes, and poems from some of the top Black food people in the world. It will be released in Fall 2021.
Follow Chef Amanda Yee @paramette.ic and support her Friends themed cookbook here.