The Importance of Queer Chef Visibility

Experiences from the LGBTQ+ community in a cutthroat, male-dominated industry

transgender visibility


It's long been an open secret that the restaurant industry is a toxic working environment, especially in the kitchen. In 2000, Anthony Bourdain’s unblushing Kitchen Confidential gave many civilians an insider’s look at the industry. When asked why businesses were taking an interest in his book, Bourdain answers, “[The kitchen is] one of the last completely politically incorrect workplaces, where you can say anything... and behave more like an outlaw than in any other business.”

The Masculine Kitchen

And men have certainly taken advantage of the industry’s lawlessness, which we saw when the #MeToo movement swept through 2017. Finally, the secrets came out about Mario Batali’s consistent sexual harassment over the past two decades, the multiple ignored reports of Ken Friedman’s unwanted sexual advances, and the Besh Restaurant Group’s culture of sexual harassment at the hands of male co-workers, supervisors, and Chef John Besh himself

In his 2010 follow-up book Medium Raw, Bourdain counters his previous description of the kitchen’s political incorrectness by earnestly insisting, “Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. The restaurant kitchen may indeed be the last, glorious meritocracy—where anybody with the skills and the heart is welcomed.”

When we asked Anita Lo—a queer, Chinese-American chef so iconic that listing her many accomplishments would push us over the word count—about her experience, she immediately replied, “The culinary world ... it’s not a meritocracy, period. How is it a meritocracy when women are sexually harassed? Who’s saying it’s a meritocracy and what do they look like?”

The Cis Perspective Is Not the Transgender Perspective

Since #MeToo, the industry encouraged many women to speak on their experiences, but the circulating stories are still largely imbalanced. “I was on a panel years ago about gender, but it was really all about cis women... A bunch of cis women having a conversation about gender and equality in restaurant kitchens and being totally blind to the fact that their experience is not the only one—gender is a spectrum," recounts Preeti Mistry, a queer, non-binary Indian American, who among many other things, was the chef and co-owner of Navi Kitchen and Juhu Beach Club, authored The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook, former Top Chef contestant, and a recent podcaster. "Right before that panel, I experienced that bit of nervousness that happens before I walk into a public restroom, like is someone going to say something? These people have no idea that’s what my experience is.”

“I think the hardest part is just being invisible. Let’s talk about trans women in the kitchen. I had a trans woman work for me as a cook, and I heard terrible stories about her experiences," recounts Mistry. "She wasn’t even able to be out, so she had to pretend to be somebody she’s not. There’s a much deeper thing than, ‘Oh you’re in a male-dominated space, and you’re a girl.’ It’s complicated.”

Paxx Caraballo Moll, Head Chef at Jungle BaoBao in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the first openly-trans chef to cook at the James Beard House, remarks on the changes they experienced before and after their transition. “There is a privilege that comes with looking the way I look now [masculine]. I’ll be at a place with my girlfriend and they won't even look at her—they’ll look at me. It baffles me because I’m still the same person, but now people are treating me differently.”

A bunch of cis women having a conversation about gender and equality in restaurant kitchens and being totally blind to the fact that their experience is not the only one—gender is a spectrum.

Such experiences are echoed by Sophia Alvarez, the Dining Room Supervisor at Brenda’s Meat & Three in San Francisco, who is a Latinx trans woman. Before her transition, the management at her previous employment constantly complimented her work, bringing up advancement opportunities within the company. “Once I told them I would be transitioning, everything changed,” Alvarez recalls. “The management became very distant. The owner wouldn’t even say hi to me. The floor manager position went to someone who was white, straight, and with no experience... I quit because I didn’t want that negativity to affect my transition.” 

Until Alvarez joined Brenda Buenviaje (a queer, Filipina-Creole chef and restaurant owner), it was common to run into issues with in-person interviews. She divulges how eager one shop owner was to hire her over email because of her impressive resume, “But when [the owner] looked at me in-person, his facial expression changed and he never called back. It felt like he threw me away. It’s sad because whether you think it’s relevant or not, it messes with your emotions, especially if you’re not white and English is not your first language. You have a lot of insecurities.”

Inclusion Starts With Management

Alvarez’s experiences demonstrate how much management plays a role in the culture of a restaurant, something many other workers report. Selasie Dotse, a Ghanian-born queer chef whose industry experience spans over 15 years, praises chef and co-owner David Barzelay from her previous time as Chef de Partie at Lazy Bear, “He let the original Chef de Cuisine go because [the Chef de Cuisine] was known for berating people. David made it a point to not promote that kind of culture in his restaurant. It’s a big deal to see a chef and co-owner letting someone go for that reason because the Chef de Cuisine is their right-hand-person. That behavior is not healthy and contributes to the already-high turnover rate in the hospitality industry.” This is high praise from Dotse, someone who is not afraid to call out toxic restaurant behaviors like anti-Blackness.

Chefs like Barzelay and Buenviaje are trying to change the culture, at least within their own kitchens. “Watching other chefs run their businesses taught me how I didn’t want to run my own. If I need to be that chef that yells and belittles people to get them to work, I don't want that job. Just showing up and being firm, but fair, has kept employee retention very high,” comments Buenviaje, the chef-owner of a trio of Creole restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland.

The Importance of Visibility for All

As someone openly out for decades, Lo asserts how important it is to see queer chefs and restaurateurs of color like Buenviaje, “I grew up in a period where there were no gay people on screen. It was a really big deal when the first gay sitcom character appeared—now it’s like an everyday thing. [When starting in the industry], I didn’t see female restaurateurs or female chefs, nevermind gay female chefs of color. It was always important for me to be out, and when younger folks reach out to me, it’s always important to answer.”

In the words of Mistry, “We can do anything and we can be whatever we want.”

Article Sources
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  1. Management by fire: A conversation with chef anthony bourdain. (2002, July 1). Harvard Business Review.

  2. Moskin, J., & Severson, K. (2017, December 12). Ken friedman, power restaurateur, is accused of sexual harassment. The New York Times.

  3. Times-Picayune, B. A., NOLA com |. The. (n.d.). John Besh restaurants fostered culture of sexual harassment, 25 women say. NOLA.Com.