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How the Grammy-winning icon became a food mogul in her 70s.
PATTI LABELLE, THE Grammy-winning diva with the platinum voice, can cook. We’re standing in her kitchen, a lived-in, light-filled corner of her grand Philadelphia home, preparing one of her favorite dishes, “Good Life Chicken.” She shows us the trick to smashing garlic perfectly (she pounds it with a mallet used for cracking crab legs) and then checks her Le Creuset to make sure a coating of grapeseed oil is sizzling enough to brown the poultry. Seasoning the meat before she throws it in the pan, LaBelle tells me that she never uses anything as boring as measuring spoons — “I do soul drops,” she says of her technique for adding spices. “I drop it like it’s hot,” she adds as she scoops some salt and pepper between her glamorously long fingernails. The oil starts to pop, and she throws the breasts and wings in with carrots and celery, then lets out a satisfied “mmmhmmm” when she pours a heaping serving of steaming broth over it all. “Cooking,” she says with a sweet smile, “keeps me living.”
Over a meal at one of his favorite restaurants in New York City, the former R.E.M....
Here in her spacious kitchen, LaBelle is in her happy place. Over the past few years, this kitchen has also become a laboratory for trying out new recipes that she can then bring to the public. LaBelle, a 78-year-old music-industry legend, exalted for her mightily soulful voice and deeply felt performances, has found a second career as a food mogul, writing successful cookbooks like “LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About” and overseeing Patti’s Good Life, a line of prepared foods and dessert pies available at Target and Walmart. The Good Life line includes the famous sweet potato pie (from her mom and dad’s old recipe), so notoriously delicious it’s hard to get your hands on during holiday time, selling out as quickly as LaBelle’s concert tickets. In fact, the pie is so adored that it went viral in 2015 thanks in part to a hilarious YouTube video from a fan extolling the virtues of its flavor. It was reported that in one particularly feverish period after the video’s release, Walmart sold one pie every second.
When the chicken is done and cooling, we retire to a small wood-lined den to chat and drink a bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, her favorite. LaBelle is relaxed in bare feet with a perfect wave of blonde hair. Two Grammys dot the shelves, the fireplace is blazing, and a photo of her with Nelson Mandela is prominently propped up nearby. Her little Shih Tzu — Mr. Cuddles, as she playfully corrects me when I forget the “Mr.” — is running around at our heels. She labels her interior-design style “eclectic,” but it’s more like cozy maximalism. Her home is filled with Lalique crystal figurines (gifts from Luther Vandross), Murano glass chandeliers, an Old Hollywood central staircase, gilded candelabras, and heaps of fresh flowers (she has flowers delivered twice a week, and Mariah Carey recently gifted her around 300 white roses).
LaBelle says that while she never expected her cooking to become a multimillion-dollar business, she’s always been confident that she makes magic happen at the stove. “I cooked for everybody, and I knew my food was the best,” she tells me. “The Rolling Stones — they would have all this catering prepared, but Mick would just call and say, ‘Patti, we’re in Philly. Come and cook.’”
‘At 78, to still remain relevant, get newer fans as I go on tour, and see people gravitate to this OG — I don’t know why it’s happening, but it’s happening.’
LaBelle’s culinary superstardom is just one part of a larger Patti-ssance happening in the culture. Though she’s been singing since the 1960s, the internet age has been good to her. The drama, dresses, and delight of divas like Mariah and Cher and Dolly Parton seem to fit with the messy, melodramatic spirit of our times. Ms. Patti’s penchant for over-the-top theatrics and mile-high wigs makes for perfect GIFs, and her unfiltered interviews and blooper reels are endlessly watchable. “Where my background singers?,” in which she endearingly improvises her way through a disastrous performance, is a classic with over two million views, and the battle of songs between her and Gladys Knight for the beloved Instagram Live series “Verzuz” was a huge smash. “I guess it’s my no-care attitude. [People] will say, ‘You’re the most approachable star,’” she says. “I just know that I’m blessed. At 78, to still remain relevant, get newer fans as I go on tour, and see people gravitate to this OG — I don’t know why it’s happening, but it’s happening.”
Things started much more humbly. LaBelle grew up in southwest Philadelphia, a child so shy her mom would sometimes give her a quarter just to go to the playground and hang out with the other kids. But her reticence also had the effect of keeping her close to the kitchen. “I stayed under my mother’s apron learning how to cook,” she says. “When I was 7 or 8, I started trying to do it myself. I pretended to make ketchup in the garage — all I did was take canned tomatoes, added some store-bought ketchup, and told my parents I had made my own. But they played along.” Her father sang, even writing little songs for himself, and LaBelle quickly learned she, too, had a special singing voice. “It’s hereditary,” she says of her powerhouse vocals. “It’s a blessing. I’ve been blessed with this voice. It’s God.”
The career didn’t come easily or overnight. An early manager was being ironic (and cruel) when he gave her her stage name, as it turns out. “LaBelle means ‘the beautiful,’ but he didn't think I was pretty at all. He thought my nose was big and I was too Black to be beautiful. But I turned it into wonderfulness. Nothing can block my blessing.” Her first successful girl group, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, was overshadowed by bigger acts like Diana Ross and the Supremes, but Patti kept at it. “I just wanted standing ovations,” she says. “And to look pretty. I’m that girl who loves to dress. So once I put my costumes on, I would walk the halls before I hit the stage to get compliments. I still do it.” Outfits became integral to the image. Her next group, Labelle, became known for wild futuristic getups in silver lamé and feathers. “It took a long time for Labelle to find our place in this world. That’s why we had to wear all kinds of crazy costumes to get attention,” she says. “I was like a beautiful drag queen. No issues, no hang-ups, no problems. Just beauty.”
LaBelle’s first blockbuster hit single, “Lady Marmalade,” a staple to this day at weddings, bar mitzvahs, basically any celebration, turned her into an international superstar. “That’s when we started selling records,” she says of the camp classic with the infamously sultry French chorus, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir.” “I didn’t know it was a song about a hooker!” LaBelle says now. “I just loved the way it sounded. When I found out that it was about hookers, I said, ‘Well, shoot, they got to make a living too.’” After that, she was forevermore a musical draw, her performances famous for their abandon and power; her live renditions of Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” now a signature, are particularly fabled. “When I sang it for Coretta Scott King years ago, before she passed, I swear to God, I levitated,” she says. “I was flying.”
When it comes to food, LaBelle has celeb-filled yarns for days. “I made liver and onions for Arsenio Hall,” she says, “and oxtails for TLC.” She once crafted a huge — and ultimately uneaten — meal for Prince. “He picked me up in the car from the ‘Alphabet St.’ video, took me to a disco, then brought me to his tailor and had four outfits made for me,” she says. “But once I prepared all the food, all he ate was a roll. He told me he just wanted to see me cook.” She went on tour with Richard Pryor, who also loved her food, and repaid her kindness with glitz and glamour. “He bought me a sauna, diamond bracelets, and a car,” she says. “I said, ‘Richard, why are you buying me this?’ He said, ‘Because I don't think anybody could [ever] pay you enough money.’”
All around LaBelle’s house are tributes to her tremendous life and career: Grammy awards, yes, but also photos with the Obamas and the Clintons, and a framed letter from President Joe Biden on White House stationery in which he calls her “American royalty” and a “musical queen.” Yet, even with this obviously extraordinary life, she doesn’t feel like she’s reached the pinnacle of success. That may be the secret to her consistent drive — she forever wants more for and of herself. “[I don’t feel I’ve received] the stardom and the notoriety that Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and Celine Dion have,” she says. “You do your job, and you do it very well, and you’re still underrated. I think it’s because of the color of my skin. They don’t hear the quality in me that they do in Celine. And when we do the same song the same way, hers sells trillions; mine sells maybe two. It’s the way of the world.”
This kind of realness, even about the tough stuff in her career, is what endears her to so many. “It’s my honesty,” she says. “Every show, I chit-chat between songs and let them know, ‘Ooh, my stocking got a run in it.’ Or ‘Anybody got any Vaseline? Because my legs are ashy.’ Real stuff. I talk about my faults. They want to hear your pain. They want to hear what hurts you. What makes you laugh. When I get a chance to spill it, I’m gonna spill it.”
There’s something so inviting and comforting about her quick quips and openhearted admissions. When I tell her I’ve never eaten turkey necks, one of her favorites, she snaps back, “Where you been?” When I act surprised that 2Pac’s hardcore “California Love” would be her preferred kitchen soundtrack, she answers, “Ms. Patti’s a gangster!” Even when I probe a bit more about some of those wild onstage costumes she wore back in the 1970s, she admits that she didn’t always get it right. “I did look stupid sometimes. Sometimes I looked like a chicken!” she says. “But I think I must’ve had a sense of humor.”
Back in the kitchen, once the “Good Life Chicken” has rested, she doles out a plate of it for me to try, singing to me as she spoons the poultry onto the dish. The food is just like her: warm and familiar, but singular and special, too, with a kick of spice that keeps things interesting. This year, she’s added breakfast items, including pancakes, waffles, and syrup, to her collection of prepared foods. There are rumblings that a pumpkin pie will be joining sweet potato on the shelves. She’s also working on a new R&B album, with the possibility of some tracks written by Mariah, whom she considers a goddaughter. “Whenever Mariah’s going through something tough, she’ll call me, and I’ll tell her, ‘Hang in there, baby,’” she says. But, most of all, day in and day out, Patti is just enjoying being Patti — the loveliest legend you ever could meet, a woman whose songs and suppers put smiles on faces. “If I woke up today, if God gave me one more day,” she says in characteristically cheerful fashion, “then I’m just happy to be here.”
Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Miranda Barnes is a photo-based artist born in Brooklyn, New York. Her practice borrows from vernacular photography and the fine-art tradition of documenting everyday scenes of families and friends, often in communion and celebration. Through rich colors, candid moments, and environmental portraiture, her subjects are elevated within intimate and personal settings. Barnes currently resides and works in Brooklyn and Austin, Texas.
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