The State of Queer Chefs in America
Abridged from Jarry Issue 1
By John Birdsall
Illustration by Paul Dotey
This story begins six years ago, as a silence I couldn’t stop thinking about. I cooked, for more than a decade and a half, in restaurants. In 2002 I left the kitchen to chase a food-writing career, and at the end of 2008, got my first gig with teeth, as the first full-time editor of SF Weekly’s awkwardly titled restaurant blog SFoodie. The responsibility of covering food in San Francisco weighed on my shoulders like a double-lug crate of asparagus. I wanted to report honestly, in stories that told how it felt to eat here, and why so many cooks with talent had come; still come.
By spring I was working on an idea: to write and edit a sprawling set of stories timed for Pride month. I called it “Queer Food Capital,” got the Weekly’s art director to design the series logo, and planned the stories: the story of Genevieve Callahan and Lou Richardson, the lesbian couple who designed Sunset magazine’s food coverage in the 1920s, and which still endures; a flip through Lou Rand Hogan’s heavily coded artifact of mid-sixties camp, The Gay Cookbook. We’d do reviews of queer-friendly restaurants, bars, and cafes. And, I thought, I’d interview every gay and lesbian chef in the city famous for them.
San Francisco was the place where you could be out and respected, free to cook beyond some cramped, invisible bistro in the gayborhood, unconfined by pink ghettoes and fear. Gary Danko, of the namesake Michelin-starred restaurant; Jardinière chef Traci Des Jardins; Elizabeth Falkner, the pastry chef who demolished the barrier between savory and sweet: I’d unfurl their stories big as the thirty-foot rainbow flag that whips around the wind in Harvey Milk Plaza.
What was I thinking?
One by one, the chefs I reached out to said no or never got back to me. I ended up writing two profiles: a lesbian sommelier, and the owner of a hospitality PR firm who told me all about his Yorkies, then fretted over sounding too faggy.
Actually, Elizabeth Falkner did call me back. In her answers, I felt scolded. “I think you have the wrong impression of me and my restaurant,” she said (Falkner still had Orson). “I don’t just cook for gay people, I cook for everybody. This is not,” she said, with an emphasis that made me feel like I’d somehow trashed her skills, “a gay restaurant.”
“Well yeah, obviously, I know, but . . .” I surrendered — doubted my series, thought it was stupid, gave up. Oh, well.
Except it kept haunting me, the question that grazed me when my windstorm of rejections was raging. It was why — in a city where the most powerful restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, is openly gay, and where a martyred Harvey Milk made coming out not only a civic virtue but an act of patriotism — why did chefs, especially ones at high-end restaurants, balk at having “gay” or “lesbian” qualifying their accomplishments?
And then I thought about me and Jimmy back in Chicago, and remembered the fear. The kitchen is not the place where you want to bust out your glittery gay cheerleader moves. The kitchen is a place that sometimes makes you want to hide.
Eileen was a dentist who moved a lot of coke, they said, and lived with her girlfriend in a walled compound on the Near West Side, back in the nineties when that part of Chicago was cheap. A tweaky thrum of paranoia rattled through the restaurant Eileen owned, and where — for a miserable year of my life, after I moved from San Francisco with my boyfriend — I was the chef.
She’d hired these cooks from Durango in Mexico, guys who scared the shit out of me. I was supposed to be their boss, but I couldn’t get them to do anything they didn’t want to do. The only other gay guy I knew at work was this server, Jimmy. He was blond and fragile, in his twenties, a twink trying to stay one forever. Jimmy was sassy and kinetic, constantly moving, blasting Ace of Base when he came in to start his side work, pausing only to land these Mariah Carey bitch-goddess poses. I loved Jimmy. And I watched him get chewed up, all the time.
One day, tripping down the stairs to the dank, craggy prep basement, I saw Jimmy with Roberto and Hector. Roberto behind, grinding on Jimmy through his pants, like he was fucking him. “You like this, puta? You want me to fuck your culo, puta?”
Roberto and Hector didn’t even acknowledge me. I looked at Jimmy’s face, twisted to the side, eyes finding mine, but instead of rage or panic I saw a blank, bored-looking kind of acceptance, tongue stuck out in a lackluster mime of passion. And then, slowly, Jimmy raised his hands to frame his face, middle fingers cocked in a fuck-you double salute directed straight at me.
Jimmy’s message was clear: Don’t you even judge me, bitch.
I felt more troubled by what I was seeing than anything else that happened in Eileen’s restaurant, and that’s saying a lot. But how could I judge Jimmy? Me, I could pass for straight if I had to, but that wasn’t an option for Jimmy, even if he wanted to.
After that, things weren’t so easy for Jimmy and me. In a weird way, I think he judged me for passing. If anybody asked (like Natalie, a lesbian single mom who worked sauté on weekends) I’d talk about my boyfriend — nobody could accuse me of being in the closet. I just wouldn’t offer up any signals, not at work.
Jimmy started teasing me about my bland clothes. I’d change out of my cook’s whites at the end of the night and Jimmy’d shade me for dressing like I shopped at the Gap outlet, which I pretty much did. “Anybody feel a draft in here?” he might say, scanning me up and down. “Maybe there’s a GAP in the window. Someone better go close that.”
I knew what he was doing. Jimmy was calling me out for trying to pass, keeping my shit underground, like a coward. Hiding in plain sight.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Jeremiah Tower erupts, throwing up his hands like he’s physically blocking my question. “Nah, I’m not getting into that.”
It’s October 2014. I’m in the Yucatan to interview Tower, the seventy-two-year-old chef who cooked at Chez Panisse in early days, and opened the now almost mythical San Francisco brasserie Stars in 1984.
Tower — tall, still beautiful in a gracefully weathered way, with stately cheekbones and soft, gray eyes — is a man who never seemed to hide his boyfriends. His taste-making, physical presence, and cultivated aura of old-money refinement made him a star in the eighties. Along with Wolfgang Puck, he was America’s first celebrity chef. And he was publicly gay.
And while Tower made being gay look easy — even elegant — it was actually kind of brutal. The 1980s and early nineties were a time of big public fundraisers, when famous chefs from all over the country would converge on New York City or Santa Monica to cook expensive galas. Tower was a natural, alongside the most famous chefs of the day: Puck, Jonathan Waxman, Larry Forgione, Bradley Ogden. “When you’re out drinking after the event,” Tower says, “all the jokes are macho straight jokes,” even if (or maybe, in part, because) they know you’re gay. Less famous chefs resented him; he knew what they said about him privately.
“There was like, ‘How could he be so famous and gay?’” Tower says. “Or, ‘What did he do to deserve that? He’s gay.’”
He was a handsome, well-dressed, white, Harvard-educated homosexual without — and this is a critical point — any messy queer political agenda. This proved, in part, to be his downfall after a wrongful termination lawsuit he lost — a server at Stars who was suffering from AIDS had been fired, and Tower was ruled culpable. He lost the support of the San Francisco straight and powerful, as well as the support of the gay and powerful, and Stars eventually crumbled.
“Sexuality for me is not political,” Tower still maintains. “It’s private. Screaming in the street is not my style. Fucking shut up about it.”
Fancy restaurants run on the engines of a hierarchy welded in the nineteenth century, with a discipline as precise as the one that propelled the armies of the Franco-Prussian War. There’s a commander — the chef — whose supremacy is buttressed along the descending flanks of an organizational tower: chef de cuisine, sous chef, chef de partie, etc. You step out of line, voice an opinion when nobody asks, or complain when someone whose rank is above yours calls you a cock-sucking faggot and you find yourself in some de facto brig of ostracism and disappearing shifts.
Johnny Maher is the chef and owner of The Rogue Gentlemen, a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. Maher went to school at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, then nailed an internship at The French Laundry in Napa. Being gay at a famously disciplined three-star place wasn’t this huge source of trauma for Maher. It just opened another avenue for pressure to come find him.
There were nights after his shift at The French Laundry, unwinding over beers with another gay cook, when Maher wanted to cry. He says it would’ve been good to have a queer mentor, to help deal with what he calls the stress and the bullshit, the little cuts from casual slurs and micro-aggressions. “More of a public figure,” he says. Somebody who wasn’t hiding.
Yigit Pura, a pastry chef in San Francisco, owner of Tout Sweet Pâtisserie and the author of Sweet Alchemy: Dessert Magic, had to brawl on the battlefield of fancy Manhattan restaurants to protect his right to establish that world. It was ten years ago, when Pura was in the pastry department at Daniel.
“One of the cooks over on the savory side was this big French guy,” Pura says. “He’d always say homophobic shit to me, he would pick on my staff all the time.
“I was juicing pure ginger juice — if you’ve ever tried that you know that if you even drink a tiny bit it burns,” Pura says. “I probably had a few quarts in front of me, and I saw this French guy picking on someone on my staff, somebody who’s gay. I said, ‘Fuck this.’ I took some ginger juice and put food coloring in it. I went over and said, ‘Stéphane, you have such a great palate, can you taste this saffron infusion for me?’ He drank it and was on the floor crying — he gasped for air for like half an hour. Sure enough,” Pura says, “he never did that shit in front of me again.”
Sometimes, in a system where you pretty much have to fight for yourself on your own, you need to make the assholes cry, the ones who made you cry. Send the message: Push a faggot, faggot will push you back.
But look, says Pichet Ong, a gay pastry chef in New York City who got his start in San Francisco in the early 1990s: Queers don’t have a lock on taking shit in restaurants. “Homophobia, people calling names — it was very common back then. The culinary culture has never been politically correct, or intellectual. It’s always been kind of brutal. Making fun of Latinos, Asians, gays, weaker people — it was the norm.” Nobody in this business wants to be pegged as any kind of outsider, Ong says, not if they can help it. It might make potential investors nervous.
“It’s still easier,” says Ong, who’s opened several businesses in his career, “for a white, straight, male chef to get investors, and after that straight women, and then gay women.” Out, vocal gay men hardly even rate. Maybe, if you can pass for straight — if pretty much only gay people, consumers of LGBT media, know you’re gay but you don’t make a point of calling it out to a general audience. Maybe it’s better, in the end, to pass, if you can.
“If you look at TV, at all the shows that everybody worships, cooking and our industry — our profession — is still an intensely competitive, macho thing,” says Clark Frasier, who in 1988 founded The Arrows restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine, with his co-chef and life partner, Mark Gaier (they sold the restaurant in 2014). Frasier and Gaier themselves competed as a gay couple, on Season Four of Top Chef Masters, which aired in 2012 on queer-friendly Bravo. The experience did nothing to temper Frasier’s view of television as a medium that loves to hype straight, fist-bumping chef-bros who walk with ball-hang swagger.
And this, ironically, at a time when upscale American food has never been so expressive.
The same season of Top Chef Masters that sent Frasier and Gaier packing in the early rounds ended with San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino cooking love letters to his wife: beef heart tartare, with foie gras and puff tendon. “I put my heart on the plate,” he says.
A lot of high-end tasting menus these days unfold as personal narratives. It’s how a fine-dining chef like Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco thinks. In the Spring 2012 issue of Lucky Peach, writer Karen Leibowitz describes a dinner at Atelier Crenn as “as a tactile poem that registers both emotionally and intellectually, though personal expression is primary.”
But when I call Crenn, who describes herself as someone who dates women, to ask if she ever thinks about expressing her love for her partner in her cooking, I feel like she’s scolding me, like it’s absurd to suggest she’d express her sexuality in food.
“Sex is extremely personal,” she says. “How would I even do it?” she asks, only I get the feeling she’s querying herself as much as to me.
“I don’t like to be portrayed as a gay chef because that has nothing to do with myself as a cook,” David Lebovitz says from Paris. He says he cringes when he reads articles about women chefs, stories ones that call them out specifically as females, that seem to qualify their accomplishments with a gender descriptor.
Lebovitz started working in the pastry department at Chez Panisse in the 1980s, when Jeremiah Tower was in his prime, across the San Francisco Bay at Stars. Since 1999 Lebovitz has authored books (his latest is My Paris Kitchen), and a popular food blog, Living the Sweet Life in Paris, where he’s developed recipes for two decades.
“You could say, ‘Oh, you should fight for visibility,’ but I write about my boyfriend on my blog,” Lebovitz says. “I don’t hide from it,” he says, “it’s just a part of my life. It’s not a part of my job description.”
I hear this over and over, talking to queer chefs: Being gay is a relatively small part of who they are, like having brown eyes or hating Game of Thrones. I get it. I don’t want to be known as a gay food writer, specifically — to have that stick in the minds of editors who’d maybe peg me for certain assignments only, limit me.
But I’m also aware that my experience of being gay has somehow shaped everything I do. From middle school, when I wrote “I love Ricky Vega” on a piece of paper a dozen times and then burned it in a panic, terrified somebody would find it, to my wedding, a decade before same-sex marriage was legal in America, abandoned by some of the people I loved most.
For gay and lesbian chefs, coming up in kitchens that despised them, or merely treated them with mild disdain, how much has the experience shaped them, in ways they don’t even realize? Anita Lo, chef at Annisa in New York City and a first-generation Chinese-American, doesn’t feel like being a lesbian consciously influences her work, but acknowledges that it could. “One could argue that me growing up as an outsider on so many levels — mostly cultural — has set the stage for me to look at culture and food outside of the box,” she says.
From the outside, David Lebovitz’s expat narrative is the quintessential gay story: You unhook yourself from the existence you knew in order to live your life on your own terms, in the service of creating beauty and meaning. You make your own family. Maybe being gay is an essential part of Lebovitz’s job description, only he’s too close to it to see.
I remember hearing Armisted Maupin on NPR once, saying that the tragedy of gays and lesbians being shut out of mainstream movie making is the stories we’ve lost.
I think of food that way — as a galaxy of potential stories, some we get to see, others we’ll never be aware of. What happens to the dinners we never get to cook? The stories we never get to tell?
Preeti Mistry grew up in London and Ohio, daughter of parents born in India, and went back to England for chef school before coming to San Francisco. Two years ago, she and her wife Ann opened the restaurant Juhu in my neighborhood in north Oakland. She’s become a friend.
Over beers, I tell her about the story I’m writing, mentioning the chefs I’ve talked to, searching for an ending. “See,” she says, “most of the people you just talked about are white, and every one is passing.” She doesn’t mean passing in the active sense, but straight-seeming enough — like me — to live with the general assumption we’re straight.
For Mistry, being a lesbian isn’t some sentence — a fun fact — in the “Personal Life” section of her Wiki-bio. Being a brown-skinned, punked-out, tight T-shirted Indian-American who cooks chaat — Indian street food — in a modern vernacular is intrinsic to her identity. No downplaying, no minimizing. No hiding in plain sight.
“Maybe for some chefs it doesn’t matter, they can choose, but I can’t. Look at me,” she says. “I don’t have a choice and I’ve never had one, so I’m just gonna own that.”
“I wasn’t so successful in the traditional restaurant environment. My time in those kinds of restaurants was so short because I was like, ‘I can’t fucking stand this,’ fine dining — it wasn’t an environment that motivated me, because it’s not an environment that ever supported me. It’s like the military.”
If the culture of the kitchen won’t change to make you feel cool about being there, it might be on you to change things, in your own place, with a mohawk and tattoos. And not hiding, banishing fear form the place you work, has a way of affecting everything.
“The people who took a chance on me saw past what I looked like,” Mistry says, “so it’s important to me that people who wouldn’t succeed in the traditional restaurant get a chance here. LGBT, hue, safe space: If that’s where you fall, this is where you can get a job and not get harassed.”
She points her chin to the cooking line, where a Latino guy in a ball cap is setting up the sauté station. She says when he started, he’d make the noises a lot of macho guys who cook in restaurants make, scoping out hot women, making comments.
“He would be staring at a customer,” Mistry says, “and I’d be like, ‘Dude, you’re creepy.’ After a while he stopped. Being here, cooking with mostly women, he’s just a sweet fucking kid who’s twenty-six and has two kids and used to be in a gang. Now he wants to talk to me about how sad it is because of the earthquake in Nepal.”
You can use transparency — visibility — to change the culture of the kitchen, even a forty-five-seat modern Indian place like Mistry’s, sharing a strip-mall lot with a check-cashing place and a shitty taqueria, near the freeway in north Oakland. Not exactly the grandeur of the queer food capital I’d imagined, but it feels like home.
Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of the story, which appears in full in Jarry, Issue 1. To read it, along with many other stories exploring the intersection gay culture and food, please subscribe at jarrymag.com/shop or check out a list of retailers who stock Jarry at jarrymag.com/stockists.