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How a Punk Rock Drag Queen Became a Top Chef

How A Punk Rock Drag Queen Became A Rising Chef Star

This former drag star and body piercer now cooks Buddhist temple cuisine.

Cyrus Ichiza is the embodiment of seeming contradictions: a punk rock drag queen and body piercer-turned-chef who now embraces a Zen cooking style and environmental sustainability. The owner of Ichiza Kitchen, a small pan-Asian restaurant and tea house in the Goose Hollow neighborhood of Portland, Ore., Ichiza is a voice of hope in a culinary world in flux.

Ichiza is not just the chef's last name. He explains that it is a multilayered term. In the most literal sense, it denotes "one sitting," a concept familiar to patrons who served their entire order at once. Branch out a bit wider, and it may refer to "one party," indicative of everyone eating together, a nod to the importance of community. Finally, in Zen, ichiza is the contemplation of one's path in life.

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One Sitting

Eating at Ichiza Kitchen is a novel experience steeped in simplicity. The kitchen has done away with courses, sending out all dishes at once, in one complete order. This is more than an opportunity to experience the interplay of flavors; it is a practice indicative of shojin ryori, Buddhist temple cuisine. Beauty lies at the heart of the set-meals, with an emphasis on the visual that goes beyond mere plating.

"When we opened, my biggest investment was ceramics," Ichiza says.

The man is, perhaps first and foremost, an artist. Born in Guam, Ichiza was adopted by his grandparents. With a step-grandfather in the military, he spent his early years living on military bases until the family landed in Charleston, S.C. Once settled, his teenage years, which he calls a "hedonistic" period, were devoted to drag and he often dominated the stage at a venue called Avalon while he worked as a barback at its sister club, Dudley's.

Things shifted when Ichiza moved to San Francisco at 23. "I decided that it was time to explore my boy-self for the first time," he recalls chuckling. Drag culture had started changing, with queens becoming increasingly focused on throwing shade, Ichiza recalls, adding that the scene became "really fucking mean."

Though he dabbled in the San Francisco drag scene, he committed to a more permanent form of artistic expression: body modification. He spent 11 years working as a professional piercer before becoming a jeweler. Successful though his jewelry business may have become, he and partner Ryan Wythe were not immune to the spiraling rents in the San Francisco Bay area. A trip to Portland convinced the pair that the City of Roses was the place for them. They opened Ichiza Kitchen shortly after moving north.

So how does a punk rock drag queen turned piercer-turned-jeweler become head chef? The roots were born in an adolescence nurtured by the power of queer family.

One Party

Ichiza learned the importance of community early on, when it stepped in to raise him after he was kicked out by his family at 14 when he came out. "Radical lesbians took me in to a squat," Ichiza recalls about being a homeless teen. "And [they] taught me everything about...queer life in America." Ichiza also connected with We Are Family, a Charleston organization working to support LGBTQ youth. Both experiences proved monumental.

His first relationship was with a teaching assistant at a South Carolina culinary school, who invited Ichiza to unofficially audit the program and gave him a set of knives. Ichiza took it upon himself to become part of a community of queer chefs working in Charleston's world-renowned restaurants. That unofficial education, combined with a childhood spent looking over his grandmother's shoulder, provided enough grounding for a culinary career.

"I was raised by my grandmother, who was a Filipina immigrant to the United States, circa 1970s," Ichiza says. "During the time I lived on my own after I was kicked out, throughout the years she would continue to check in with me. As I grew into an adult we definitely reconciled here and there and became close as the years went by. Even in my ripe old age of 35, me and my grandmother, though her health is this day our relationship is strengthened in the kitchen."

Once in Portland, his drag attire in boxes, Ichiza began working as a sous-chef and then restaurant consultant. When word came of a restaurant wanting to relinquish its lease, Ichiza seized the opportunity to take it over. He and Ryan launched Ichiza Kitchen two years ago with a little help from his grandmother: "She came to work at the restaurant for the first six months we were open. Now she lives with my birth mom in Florida."

The couple run the kitchen in a very Portlandesque progressive manner, fighting the "callous" and "toxic" abuses of power that Ichiza says commonly thrive in the service industry. Instead, the restaurant is a space of inclusivity, where individual personalities are encouraged to flourish and gender issues are addressed and discussed. Salaries are distributed evenly from dishwasher to those working front of house.

Contemplation of One's Path

In Buddhist teachings, the chef says, ichiza is about taking the time to decide whether you want to change the direction of your life. "It is tongue-in-cheek for veganism and the environmental impact our food has," he admits. Ichiza has long been concerned with the environmental impact of meat production, becoming a vegetarian at 15. As Ichiza Kitchen is vegan, fake meats assume center stage. The prominence of vegan substitutes offers an opportunity to rethink the presence of meat in the modern diet -- and its role in the looming climate crisis. The menu proclaims, "Fake meats save lives."

"Growing up, most of our family meals were made from scratch and usually centered on Filipinx-Pacific cuisine," Ichiza says. "I remember we would make a big pot of chicken adobo a few times every month that would just live in the refrigerator and it became more delicious over time than it was freshly cooked. I've always kept my grandmother's secrets with me in the kitchen."

Ichiza's adobo recipe riffs off that traditionally meat-centered dish. "I do like to expand upon it into a more delicious and nourishing meal by using vegan meat alternatives, non-GMO soy sauce, and probiotic vinegar," he explains. "A traditional Filipinx adobo from my Lola -- my mother's mother -- consisted of braising an entire flat of chicken in equal parts white distilled vinegar and that Swan-brand soy sauce...with a handful of black peppercorns and bay leaves with plenty of chopped onions and garlic. One of the best tastes of childhood was near the end of the night after family parties. I would help my aunties wash dishes and just scrape the most delicious caramelized adobo from the bottom of the cooking pans. So good!"

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