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Biography & Autobiography Culinary

My Ackee Tree

A Chef's Memoir of Finding Home in the Kitchen

by (author) Suzanne Barr

with Suzanne Hancock

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Apr 2022
Culinary, Personal Memoirs, Women
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2022
    List Price

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For fans of The Measure of My Powers and Notes from a Young Black Chef, a memoir about food, family, and the recipes that brought one woman home when she needed it the most.

Suzanne Barr’s journey to become a chef started when she was 30. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer and she moved home to Florida to take care of her. Suzanne escorted her mother to doctor’s appointments, bathed her, and kept her company, but the hardest part of the experience was that she didn’t know how to cook for her. She didn’t even know where to begin.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2017 when Suzanne became the inaugural Chef-in-Residence at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. She wanted to create a menu that represented who she was as a chef and it emerged as a love letter to her mother. Her Rite of Passage Menu, as she called it, changed her. It started her on a journey that has brought her closer to her mother, to her ancestors, and to her Jamaican heritage.

But a lot has happened before and since.

My Ackee Tree tells the story of a woman who is always on the move, always seeking; who battles the stereotypes of being a Black female cook to become a culinary star in an industry beset by dated practices and landlords with too much power. From the ackee tree in front of her childhood home, through New York City, Atlanta, Hawaii, the Hamptons, and France, Suzanne takes us on her unpredictable journey, and at every turn, she finds light and comfort in the kitchen. Told in a voice as fresh and honest as her cooking, My Ackee Tree is a celebration of creativity, soul searching, and motherhood that asks, “How can I keep the things I love?”

About the authors

Suzanne Barr's profile page

Suzanne Hancock has taught at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and is the author of Another Name for Bridge. She lives in Montreal.

Suzanne Hancock's profile page


  • Short-listed, Taste Canada Awards - Culinary Narratives

Excerpt: My Ackee Tree: A Chef's Memoir of Finding Home in the Kitchen (by (author) Suzanne Barr; with Suzanne Hancock)


My truck is full of thirty-five-dollar used chairs from an Italian restaurant on College Street that’s getting a facelift. I’m on my way to the dry cleaner where I’m supposed to pick up a whole whack of napkins that the seamstress was making from a ream of denim that I’d found a few months before. The seamstress doesn’t have them all ready, although we’d agreed on a date weeks before, and I’m pissed. I think we’ll have enough for the evening, though, so I get back in the truck and call Johnnie, who’s at the restaurant patching and painting some spots we missed. It’s opening night. Our restaurant, Saturday Dinette, with its whitewashed walls and black trim, with its black-and-white tile and elegant countertop is about to open its doors. Johnnie tells me that it’s no big deal, we’ll have enough napkins, come home. And the restaurant really does feel like home. We’ve been working non-stop for three months to turn it into our dream restaurant, and we’ve spent way more time there than at our studio loft a few blocks away. He’s right, it’s no big deal, and I choose to let the frustration escape through the window and disappear along the Gardiner Expressway.

I’m listening to the De La Soul song, “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays,’” the inspiration for the name of our restaurant. And “Dinette” (definition: a dining alcove or nook) because we want it to be a small, family-style place where people can come for modern comfort food. A diner, with all the history that diners have represented since the era of sit-ins and the civil rights movement. It’s 4 o’clock, and doors open at 7, so I’ll have lots of time to put the finishing touches on the bites we are going to offer: Rosemary Socca, Zucchini Latkes, Sticky Ribs. We’ve sent invitations out to friends, family, and neighbours who’ve been watching us renovate for months, and we’re hoping for some walk-ins, too. Sitting at the red light, waiting to turn left onto Carlaw, my phone rings.
“Hey, Dr. Harris.”

“Hi, there. I have the results from the blood work we did last week.”

I’d been feeling a little light-headed and not quite myself, and they were testing my thyroid function, iron levels, and, also, for pregnancy.

“It looks like you’re pregnant, Suzanne.”

Green light and tears. So many tears. I can’t stop crying. And I’m not crying for joy; I’m crying because I can’t do this. I can’t be pregnant. I don’t want to be pregnant. I’m about to open my very first restaurant, and I can’t do that and have a baby at the same time. I should pull over, but I can’t think. Along Dundas, everything comes at me in waves—missing my mum, meeting Johnnie in France, moving to Canada while longing to be back in Brooklyn, finding a space on the corner of Gerrard Street East and Logan Avenue that felt like the perfect place to open a restaurant. And then that final, sickening wave that threatens to drown me: Will I be a good mother?

Our catering company, Pepper and Sprout, is how we pay the bills right now, and it takes up all of our daylight hours. At night, we renovate the Dinette. It’s exhausting and beyond stressful, but it’s exciting like nothing ever has been before. This is going to be my restaurant, and I’m going to knock it out of the park. I’ve always been a self-starter—a daughter of hard-working immigrants, I throw myself wholeheartedly into everything I do. Late nights after working on the floors, or cleaning the walls, or setting the place up, I can already feel Saturday Dinette as a busy place, music blaring, frying pans smoking, orders for our special brand of comfort food flying out of the ticket machine.

I pull up beside the restaurant and sit in the car for a little while, taking deep breaths and cleaning up my smeared mascara. I think of my mother, who had her first baby when she was eighteen and was pressured to marry the father. I wonder how profoundly alone she felt. I feel her and her great strength, and I savour the moment of deep communion. At the same time, I wonder if this pregnancy will break me. I don’t know many people in Toronto. My sister, Tanya, lives across the continent in Los Angeles, my dad is in Plantation, Florida, where I grew up, and Amanda and Maria, my best friends, are in Florida, as well. I suddenly feel totally alone. It’s a feeling that I’m used to, and that comes naturally, and it’s a feeling that I’m trying to overcome.

Home has always been hard to define. Is it Florida, where I grew up? Is it Toronto, where I was born? Or does it stretch further back than that? Is it land that I barely know, land where my ancestors lived in Jamaica? Is it in my memories of my mother?

Johnnie and some of the young women who work for us at Pepper and Sprout, and who will become the backbone of the Dinette, come out to the car, and he taps the trunk for me to open it. There’s excitement about the chairs and a general buzz of anticipation about the evening. Johnnie realizes that I’m not getting out of the car and hops into the front seat.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, but I’m pissed about the napkins. I wish I knew another seamstress. And Dr. Harris called to say that I’m pregnant.”

“Wait. What?”

And then the tears come again and I tell him that I feel so alone and that I can’t have a baby, we’re about to open a restaurant. His arms feel good, and he says, “You’re not alone. I’m here. We can do this together. I agree, it’s not the best time, but, holy shit, we’re going to have a baby!” He’s crying too. I’ve only known Johnnie for a year, and we’re about to become business partners as well as parents. I look at him, and I realize that I’m not alone. Maybe we can do this. We have to do this.

We gather the staff together and say, “Let’s get this restaurant open.”

Editorial Reviews

Praise for My Ackee Tree:
“Suzanne Barr is not only a brilliant chef but she's also a talented, honest storyteller. In My Ackee Tree she shares her amazing story, her love of food, music, family, adventure, and her journey to become a chef, wife, and mother. Her generous heart and soul is poured out on every page with such passion, emotion, humour, strength, and resilience. My Ackee Tree is inspiring and heartwarming—and such a gift.”
—Chef Lynn Crawford, bestselling author of Farm to Chef and Hearth & Home

“Any good cook knows that layering one's seasonings is necessary to make a great dish, but in My Ackee Tree, Suzanne Barr shows how layers also make a life rich, full, and complex. Through the recounted conversations, meals, and recipes that thread together her upbringing, Suzanne brings food to life, and life to food. Communicating an inspiring and quintessentially Black experience of finding oneself on life's winding, rocky, joyful, not-so-straightforward road, her stories will ignite scent memories for anyone with roots in the Caribbean, and her recipes, when you cook them, will foster a love of that same world, no matter where you're from.”
—David Zilber, New York Times bestselling co-author of The Noma Guide to Fermentation

“Part love letter, part coming of age tale, Suzanne Barr’s stories in My Ackee Tree build a tapestry of will and hope. Driven by love for her mother, Barr is able to fulfill a promise to herself: she cares for her dying mother and discovers the gift of her native food. This is her personal homecoming. It nurtures her soul and spirit, and it’s where she discovers her passion to be a chef. Bravo!”
—Alexander Smalls, author of Meals, Music, and Muses and Between Harlem and Heaven

“I loved Suzanne's memoir. It is a delightful mix of family, food, and love. It seems cliché to say it, but I really wish I could be one of her regulars, enjoying her signature dish of Big Chick Thighs and feeling the magic she and her husband Johnnie transmit to their diners.”
—Kristina Gill, food editor and co-author of Tasting Rome

“To a fellow chef, Suzanne has always been an inspiration. Learning more about her story, and all her triumphs and all her trials, only inspires me more. Thoughtfully written and with delicious recipes, it’s a must-read.”
—Amanda Cohen, co-author of Dirt Candy

“I was instantly taken by Suzanne's good nature and her authenticity. Her cooking is all about robust flavours with a personal twist, but it’s always solidly rooted in her family background. We've only had a small taste of what Suzanne is capable of in the kitchen and I look forward to watching that evolution.”
—Mark McEwan, author of Great Food at Home and Mark McEwan Rustic Italian

“The strength and power of women in kitchens not only rests in our dedication to our craft, but in our stories and in our deep connections with our past and each other. Suzanne Barr has given us a beautiful glimpse into this strength, where we learn about how she built an inspiring career on the foundation of family and community. She is one of the most important voices in food today, not only because of what sets her apart, but because of how—through her skill and dedication, her sincere care and rich heart—she pulls us all together.”
—Lisa Donovan, author of Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger
“[Suzanne Barr] recounts her experiences in the culinary world as a Black woman, battling stereotypes and challenging the status quo. With honesty and vulnerability, she shares her story of finding ways to keep the things she loves.”
“Barr takes us along for a journey through the meals, recipes, and conversations of her upbringing and her path in becoming a chef, wife, and mother. Through all the twists and turns—from the ackee tree of her childhood home to NYC, Toronto, and beyond—it’s full of soul, heart, humor, strength, and food inspired by Caribbean roots. Her passion for cooking permeates each chapter, and her zest for life is contagious.”
“[My Ackee Tree] offer[s] up a series of captivating tales about [Barr’s] journey as a chef along with a collection of recipes from throughout her life.”
—Eat North
“Through all of her travels in My Ackee Tree, Barr weaves together stories of her Jamaican heritage and her desire to create a tasty story all her own.”
“Inspiring stories of great hardship and love integral to the famous comfort meals [Barr] shares with the world today.”

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