Queers in the Kitchen
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!”
Pura agrees with Smith, recalling how hard he had to work to earn respect in New York kitchens early in his career. Pura said the first chef he worked for was a lesbian, so he didn’t encounter much homophobia under her leadership. But when it came to high-end restaurants, Pura says he had to prove himself, even though he held one of the most esteemed positions in the kitchen.
“Everyone else was older than me — they were French and definitely very aggressive,” Pura says. “So I never really came out of the closet for the first three to six months. I never hid it, but I really wanted people to see my perseverance and my work ethic and my talent first.”
Male and female chefs agree that the best way to silence disparaging coworkers and unfriendly environments is to work hard. But unlike gay chefs, several lesbian chefs reported less bullying due to their sexual orientation and instead had to confront the sexist, male-dominated mindset of the culinary world.
Lesbian food maven Susan Feniger, a staple of the Los Angeles culinary scene who, with her business partner Mary Sue Milliken, owns about a half-dozen restaurants in California and Las Vegas, says being a woman in the male-dominated culinary industry has made her stand out, more so than being a lesbian.
“In hindsight, as a woman, I’m sure I made less money than some of the men I was working side by side with, who probably had less experience than me,” Feniger says. She also notes a gender gap when it comes to venture capital funding of culinary endeavors. “My sense is that you see a lot more men out there funded for [restaurant] expansion and growth than you do women.”
Nevertheless, Feniger has surmounted that gender gap, opening her latest restaurant, Street, in 2009, and launching her newest cookbook, Susan Feniger’s Street Food, based on that successful concept this summer.
Feniger is known by many for her expertise in Latin cuisine, and she says her talent grew out of the bias she encountered as a young chef. “Back in the late ’70s,” Feniger recalls, “there weren’t many women in the kitchen. And when you did get into a very strict French kitchen in the United States… you got put to the prep kitchen because you were a woman, [and] most of the guys that you were working with ended up being Hispanic.”
Elizabeth Falkner, a lesbian chef who has a new cookbook, Cooking Off the Clock, says that for women, sexual orientation is often a nonissue in the high-stakes world of commercial kitchens. Falkner, who has appeared on Top Chef Masters, $40 a Day, and The Next Iron Chef, among others, can be seen on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption on Food Network this month.
Falkner became San Francisco’s de facto gay wedding cake baker with her flagship bakery, Citizen Cake, known for its unique, creative constructions, and its proximity to City Hall. Falkner recently left Citizen Cake and her other San Francisco eatery, Orson, to launch her new restaurant, Krescendo, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I don’t think that me being a lesbian has ever gotten in the way of me doing anything in my profession,” says Falkner, who has been cooking for more than 20 years. “The biggest stereotype I’ve ever been cast into is being a pastry chef. And I am a pastry chef, but I’m also a chef.”
Pura struggles with the same stereotypical assumption, with the compounding factor that people assume all pastry chefs are gay, he says. But, Pura says, a good meal can overcome even the starkest of differences or the most vindictive prejudice.
“Whether you’re gay or straight, whether you’re a Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist, people love food,” says Pura. “I’ve found that [food is] actually a really homogenizing point. People love dessert, and it’s a great way to break the ice.”
That’s precisely the premise of queer comedian Margaret Cho’s forthcoming reality show on the Food Network, Blind Dinner Party. The program, which does not yet have an airdate, puts Cho and seven strangers around a dinner table, documenting all the conflict and hopeful eventual reunification of opposing ideas.
“There has always been a great presence of queers in the food world,” says Cho. “When something is delicious, there’s no homophobia or hatred. It’s just good, no matter what.”
Executives at Bravo and Food Network agree that culinary talent trumps all other characteristics.
“We look for chefs of a certain caliber,” says Dave Serwatka, vice president of current and cross-platform production at Bravo. “Chefs who are up-and-coming in the culinary world, and chefs that our audience will respond to. We want a diverse cast that reflects that. If they’re gay, they’re gay, but they are also great at what they do.”
But these great chefs who happen to be gay and lesbian aren’t just resting on their laurels. Many are not seeking fame solely for its own sake, but leveraging their celebrity for charitable causes. Smith founded Common Threads, which seeks to teach low-income children how to cook healthy, affordable meals. Smith also partners with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and British rugby player Ben Cohen’s antibullying campaign.
Season 4 of Top Chef: Masters featured a married gay couple competing against each other, both for Maine charities that promote LGBT equality. Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier have been married for 27 years but went head-to-head that season, earning money for Equality Maine Foundation and Outright Lewiston/Auburn, respectively.
Feniger sits on the board of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and partners with and donates to several charities. She views her own life as a chance to effect change. Recalling neighborhood friends she and her partner, writer-director Liz Lachman, have made, Feniger fondly recounts a neighbor’s 80th birthday party, held at one of Feniger’s restaurants. The guest of honor insisted that Feniger and Lachman attend the party, and proudly introduced the couple to his conservative cohorts as “my new gay friends.”
“If you can make one person be a little bit more aware and open, that’s a big step,” Feniger says.
Pura is also doing what he can to make a difference, especially for LGBT youth. He partners with the Human Rights Campaign and the Trevor Project and filmed his own video contribution to the It Gets Better Project. As a gay person of color who emigrated from Ankara, Turkey, at the age of 12, Pura says he was a target for bullies in high school.
“These things that I always thought made me different and weak — I’ve found that actually, in my adult life, those are the things that make me really strong and set me aside as an individual,” he says.
What’s more, the pressure on gay and lesbian chefs can actually drive them to succeed, Pura contends. “I think when you’re thrown into an environment like the culinary world, where you’re not accepted, you become a fighter,” Pura says. “So then you learn to achieve the highest level of goals. Maybe what is thrown in our face as a challenge makes us better chefs in the end.”