Food & Drink
Suzanne Barr’s New Memoir Proves She’s More Than Just a Chef
Barr's diverse life experiences are woven into her career.
by : Aman Dosanj- May 9th, 2022
PHOTOGRAPHY, SAMUEL ENGELKING (S. BARR)
“I’m sorry—I was in deep,” says Suzanne Barr. The second the Toronto-born, Florida-raised chef jumps on our Zoom call from Miami, she is apologetic about losing track of time—she was in the kitchen testing recipes. “I cook because I love it,” she says. “It gives me an emotional reset.” As it turns out, Barr losing herself in the moment is the perfect introduction to My Ackee Tree: A Chef’s Memoir of Finding Home in the Kitchen.
Previously a photographer, a stylist, a filmmaker, an MTV producer and a private chef in the Hamptons, she only began her remarkable rise as a chef when she was 30, after her mom passed away from pancreatic cancer. Fast-forward to today and the two-time restaurateur, inaugural chef-in-residence at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel, social advocate and Food Network Canada’s Wall of Chefs judge is one of North America’s leading culinary talents.
In her intimate new book, Barr invites us into her childhood home, where her love of cooking began. “People knew bits and pieces, but the bulk of my life—my story, how I got to where I am—was in my back pocket, nestled in the darkest spaces in my heart and soul,” explains the first-time author. Achingly beautiful, her story takes us on a personal journey through grief, self-doubt, love and self discovery as she finds her way home in the kitchen, which is particularly poignant when you consider that the very idea of home is often hard for the children of immigrants to define. “This is a connection to my history, a connection to my mother,” she says of the book, which has nods to her family’s Jamaican, English, Canadian and U.S. roots.
Moving from Atlanta, Ga., to her parents’ home in Plantation, Fla., following her mother’s diagnosis, Barr found herself acting as caregiver in a heartbreaking role reversal. As her mother’s taste buds changed with the many rounds of chemo and radiation therapy, the meals that were lovingly prepared by Barr were simply pushed aside. “How do I hold on to memories [of my mother] when I can’t even remember how to cook for her? I don’t even know what to cook for her,” Barr recalls thinking at the time. “Understanding what [her] body was going through or what her [sense of] taste was going through wasn’t something that I could do—I didn’t have the knowledge,” she explains. The experience prompted her to leave a successful career in film and television and search for something more. Looking for a deeper understanding of how food can heal, Barr studied at the Natural Gourmet Institute (an international leader in health-supportive culinary education whose alums include Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen and food-justice activist Bryant Terry) in New York and then did short cooking-related stints in Hawaii and France before opening her first restaurant, Saturday Dinette, in Toronto in 2014.
“I value the title, the role [and] the responsibility of being a chef, but I also value the fact that I’m more than just a chef,” she says. “Thinking [about] what [my mother] could have experienced if she’d given herself the time to imagine a life in which she was a mum and an interior designer or a mum and a dancer…” Now that she is a mother herself, Barr doesn’t want to miss that opportunity. “I stand for my ancestors [and for] the women in my life who were never able to dream the way that I am dreaming,” she says.
That’s part of what makes Barr a different kind of chef: Her life experiences are woven into her many commitments, whether she’s redefining how Black women are viewed in kitchens or fighting for fair and just practices or paving the way for others. “This is an opportunity to walk in the shoes of the many women who stomped in [my] place [before me]—the women who stood in the kitchen with pride but also the women [who] stood in the kitchen because they were forced to be there,” she says. “I was not forced to go into the kitchen; I chose to be in the kitchen.”
While initially the thought of writing a memoir felt weird to the 45-year-old—because she feels she has only just begun—putting her story onto paper felt like exactly what she needed to do. As for what’s next, there’s talk of product development, another restaurant and maybe even something film-related. Whatever it is, the multi-hyphenate will likely take the lead. “Be boundless with the opportunities and the possibilities,” she says. “And be fearless in your desire to continue to push.”
Purchase a copy of My Ackee Tree: A Chef’s Memoir of Finding Home in the Kitchen here.
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