Amanda Yee On Coming Home to Herself Halfway Around the World
“I moved to Copenhagen because it was a blank canvas, like Baldwin moving to Paris.”
November 15, 2018 ● 4 min read
By Stephen Satterfield | Photo by Isabel Butler
Chef Amanda Yee has always felt comfortable finding her own way. As a woman of many ethnicities, life, she says, oscillates between feeling at home in the world and feeling exasperated by it. Faced with a choice like that, the persistent always forge a new path.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Yee, an Oakland, California native of Chinese, Norwegian and African-American descent, did what many of us merely threatened and dreamed of doing: she left the country. Now, at 36, after a life of travel, questioning, and cooking, she’s ready to present the culmination of her idiosyncratic life in the form of The Blues Woman, an American Southern restaurant opening in Copenhagen next year.
Before starting The Blues Woman, Yee spent time in acclaimed kitchens throughout California and Denmark, while simultaneously operating a community-based supper club in the Bay Area. The Blues Woman is her homage to the legacy of black women in the American South, the architects of America’s only true enduring national cuisine, derived from the big houses and overwrought fields of Southern plantations.
We caught up with Yee while she made her way through Marrakech to better understand the ways in which she expresses her identity through cooking, and the unique challenges of starting out in an industry that has been everything from indifferent to inhospitable towards those who share her race and gender.
How’d you first get into cooking?
I was always interested in food. When I was 10, my parents moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, which was my introduction to Southern food. I moved back to Oakland after college in 2007. I was so jealous of all of my friends who were cooking, so I enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu and soon after started a popsicle company called Cranky Boots Cold Confections.
After that, I met [chef and food justice advocate] Bryant Terry and started helping him with his cookbook, writing and recipe testing [for Afro-Vegan] and became sort of his right hand.
How’d you end up in Copenhagen?
I came here when I was 23 and liked it. I thought, ‘Socialism. Cool.’ But also: I left the States because it’s not a safe place for a Black woman. I moved to Copenhagen because it was a blank canvas, like Baldwin moving to Paris.
How’d you know people in Denmark would appreciate this kind of cooking before you started doing your pop-ups?
I didn’t. I just wanted to tell my story. I knew that some of them would listen and for the people who didn’t give a shit, I didn’t worry about them.
What was the reaction to the Southern cuisine you first presented The Blues Woman?
The response was really positive. Danish palates are changing all the time because they travel—and many have been to the South, so they’re very open. Plus, Danish people love black American culture. We have that flavor that’s missing here.
You’ve lived all over the world. What is it about Copenhagen that has been different from your other experiences?
Some of my other moves were based on fear. They were closer to home, easier to control. But here—even though it’s hard and difficult—I don’t feel the fear. I don’t feel like I’m making decisions based out of fear. I feel I’m trusting the universe.
Having my own restaurant is my own form of activism in the way it is for Dooky Chase.
How is having your own restaurant, anywhere, but also specifically in Copenhagen, a form of activism?
You just need to go where there’s space for you, and space for your story. If you can have it be heard and have it be heard worldwide it doesn’t matter if that activism is local or global—especially as people of color.
A large part of who I am is about holding space. I'm trying to hold space for people of color and women of color, to loosen systematic grips. In the U.S. I didn’t feel there was space for me: I moved because I was tired of that bullshit.
What specifically is the bullshit?
Racism and sexism. Being a woman of color in an industry dominated by white males. Denmark has racism, but it’s not systemic. Racism here is about ignorance, but they’re not going to deny you a bank loan because of your skin color.
What have been the hardest parts for you in trying to open your restaurant in this specific place?
It’s cultural. Danish people are slow. It’s a Socialist country so there’s no hustle, no weathering the storm. But as an American on a visa, it’s higher stakes. Plus I’m American, we hustle.
I think given the support of the government, it’s made it so people don’t realize the ways in which people who don’t have those same benefits, like foreigners, struggle. The people are very friendly, but the government support creates a certain lack of empathy because they don’t have to struggle for anything.
Are there hardships you’ve experienced here in trying to open that you don’t think a white male would have to confront?
I don’t get to complain. I don’t have a platform to. I have to take it when people criticize my art (though that doesn’t happen a lot).
People perceive me as a black girl with an attitude because I’m straightforward. And the power of the gaze... people expecting me to be nice or cater to their ego. I can’t just be a human being having a day. I have to make them feel comfortable in my presence. I call it male cooking fragility. They can lose their temper or hold everyone hostage by weaponizing their attitudes in the kitchen.
How is Copenhagen different from America and other countries you’ve traveled to?
It’s less violent and I’m less anxious. I can sleep with my door open and feel [at] peace. I don’t have the same worries that I do in America. I don’t worry about walking down dark streets, and men are generally more respectful of women. But I do enjoy traveling to other countries where the people there don’t need alcohol to have a good time and it’s just the little things like colors or enjoying the sun and the general simplicity of life.
What are you most excited about with this opening?
I’m collaborating with another friend, Milton Addison Able II, who is a black American chef. He’s making beignets and sourdough bread. I’m also making oysters Florentine with sourdough. Working with another black chef who is making cornbread hash with beans and greens and jam and biscuits. Seasonal southern American food.
[I’m living] in Copenhagen at a time that’s like 2005-2006 in San Francisco. Everybody’s excited about food, there are opportunities for new ideas. There is a Danish openness to new things and new cuisines. When they travel to Ecuador or New Orleans, they try things and wander.