Queers in the Kitchen

From the looks of Bravo and the Food Network, gay and lesbian chefs are ubiquitous. But big-name LGBT cooks say they’re still the minority — underpaid and underrepresented.



Art Smith on the Top Chef: Masters set.


Conventional (albeit sexist) wisdom says that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. But when it comes to commercial kitchens, women are still underpaid and underrepresented — that goes double for lesbian chefs.

It’s no secret that the culinary industry is male-dominated, but according to gay and lesbian chefs, the macho environment has little tolerance for anything feminine — whether that be a woman or a gay man whom workers view as effeminate.

The culinary industry’s misogyny is well documented. In 2010 women held just 10.5% of the country’s executive chef positions, according to industry resource StarChefs.com. The site reports that a male executive chef makes, on average, $17,000 more a year than a female executive chef.

Despite numerous gay and lesbian personalities on Bravo and Food Network, including Ted Allen of Chopped, Cat Cora of Around the World in 80 Plates, Elizabeth Falkner of Iron Chef, Susan Feniger of Too Hot Tamales, Anne Burrell of Worst Cooks in America, and Top Chef’s Art Smith, out chefs who work in the industry say they’re still in the minority.

“There don’t tend to be a lot of gay chefs,” says Yigit Pura, a gay pastry chef and winner of the first season of Top Chef: Just Desserts, and who in September opened his own San Francisco shop, Tout Sweet Patisserie. “Especially high-end, fine-dining kitchens tend to be really high-testosterone, macho working environments that are not either the most conducive to LGBT people or [not] the most encouraging or somewhere where you feel as though you can be comfortable in your own skin.”

Smith, a two-time contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters who has also appeared on Iron Chef America, agrees that the kitchen isn’t always a great place to be queer.

In his early days as a chef, fellow kitchen staff regularly bullied Smith, leading him to take refuge in a chocolate shop near his workplace. While Smith used humor to deflect the harsh words of his colleagues, he attributes his ultimate success to his perseverance. And there’s no shortage of success in Smith’s life. Until 2007 he was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, he’s now authored three cookbooks, and he owns or co-owns five restaurants around the country: Table Fifty-Two, Art and Soul, Southern Art, Joanne Trattoria, and LYFE Kitchen. 

“How do you face up to the hate?” Smith asks. “Well, we do it the American way — just be better than they are!”