Last week, John Birdsall’s “Straight-Up Passing”—the feature essay from our first issue—won a James Beard Award! We hope you’ve read it already (read the full piece here), but if not: John begins by describing a roundup he’d wanted to write for Pride Week several years ago, a celebration of all the talented LGBTQ chefs working in the Bay Area. That piece was never published because none of the chefs he reached out to wanted to participate. This incident stuck with him and, using it as a springboard, "Straight-Up Passing" incorporates his experience as a restaurant cook with conversations with chefs across the country to explore the curious state of being “out” in American kitchens right now.
In the Q+A below, John shares more of his background as a cook and writer, some of the feedback he's received since writing his essays “Straight-Up Passing” and “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” and an exciting project that he’s currently working on.
One thing I love about your essays, especially the ones like "America, Your Food Is So Gay" and "Straight-Up Passing" that explore food and gay culture, is how your personal story is always incorporated—it’s so effective for illustrating some of your claims and conclusions. How did you arrive at this approach?
Thanks. I’ve always just felt my way with feature writing. I like narrative storytelling, even in pieces with a reported element, like “Straight-Up Passing.” I tend to use my own experiences to stitch the journalism together. Especially in long-form stories, where I want to keep the reader’s interest across long, gray blocks of text, I try to keep the textures varied, the way I think a filmmaker would: intricate close-ups here, wide shots there, alternating between memoir and exposition. I think mining your own experience—especially intimate details, or scenes charged with emotion—also tells the reader that you believe so much in what you’re writing you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable. You invite the reader to surrender his or her emotions to the piece, to invest along with you. It’s a huge responsibility, as a writer, to ask a reader to trust you enough to access his or her own feelings along with you.
In "Straight-Up Passing" you briefly write about the time you spent as a chef and working in restaurant kitchens. How did you get started in that work, and do you ever miss it? What prompted your shift to writing?
I got a job as a full-time writer straight out of Berkeley, back in the 1980s. It was for a very unglamorous trade magazine, when such things existed. About two years in, a boy I was dating took me to lunch in San Francisco at Greens, a restaurant that still exists. I had the cliché food epiphany over a salad: finely veined greens picked that morning at the restaurant’s farm, just over the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin headlands I could see from our table, crisp slices of apple and new-crop walnuts. I wanted to know everything about that salad—within six months, I’d quit my job and was working at Greens for minimum wage, a cook’s apprenticeship in a kitchen I loved. I figured I’d work there for a year, learn its secrets, then quit and become a food writer, but cooking in restaurants got its claws in me. I did a little writing here and there (including for a now-defunct SF gay weekly, The Sentinel), but it took me 17 years to finally drop my kitchen clogs in the dumpster and start writing. Nobody ever succeeds alone, especially in writing—after not knowing what the hell I was doing for a couple of years, a couple of editors stumbled onto my stuff, saw through the ridiculousness of it, and gave me a chance. I’ve been fortunate to have patient mentors, both in the kitchen and in editorial offices.
Since you wrote that essay, have any queer chefs come forward to share interesting or illuminating stories? Are there any notable developments?
After I wrote “America, Your Food Is So Gay” for the Lucky Peach Gender Issue in 2013, some gay cooks working in the industry reached out, thanked me for asserting the influence of queer voices in American food (I mean, I wrote that piece in part to acknowledge that James Beard, the guy chefs aspire to have hanging around their necks in medal form, lived his professional life painfully wedged in the closet). "Straight-Up Passing" is a different kind of essay, more a challenge for chefs to own queerness in their work, not just regard it as a fact at the bottom of their Wikipedia bios, something you may or may not know about them. We live in amazing and challenging times—obviously, LGBT people have incredible visibility, afforded civil rights my gay uncles could never seriously have imagined in the 1960s. But as queers in America we’re still struggling to express our culture, tell the stories only we can tell, assert a uniquely queer point of view for non-gay audiences. Although I tried to challenge queer chefs in "Straight-Up Passing,” it’s as much a challenge for myself to find honest expression. The feedback I’ve gotten so far has been from a few cooks in the industry telling me to keep talking about our experiences. To go deeper.
After winning in the Food & Culture category last week, you remarked that that particular award has gone to Bay Area residents for three years in a row now. What's happening over there that seems to foster such energy?
Ha, I guess I’m always cheerleading for the Bay Area. I grew up here, but I think—since the Gold Rush—San Francisco has been a place where queer people in particular have found, not only acceptance, but a place to ponder our lives, perched on the edge of the continent. To live in the Bay Area is to be immersed in the culture of food, but also of social awareness. Me, I came up in a San Francisco obsessed equally over smashing the norms of sexuality and thinking about food in a new way, embracing pleasure in all kinds of ways, and intellectualizing it. Things have changed massively here in the past few years, what with the flood of tech bros, but it’s still a place where going to the farmers’ market to buy the best food in America is both a deeply political act and a chance to show off your hotness. Can I LOL here?
Any current or upcoming projects we can look forward to?
I’m working on a book, collaborating with a chef from Oakland, James Syhabout (it’s slated for publication next year, under Anthony Bourdain’s imprint for Ecco Press). James has a two-Michelin star restaurant, Commis, but he came to California as a Laotian refugee—it’s a story about finding strength by owning your personal narrative, something I’m pretty much obsessed with. James and I just got back from an eating trip to northern Laos. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful food. It’s also a deeply conservative communist nation, where flying a rainbow flag outside your house or business is illegal. I came home with a new respect for Pride flags, and the struggle to express our truth. It never ends.
Follow John on Twitter and Instagram: @john_birdsall