For Pride month, we asked nine LGBTQ chefs how belonging to the LGBTQ community is part of their work
Aaron Hutcherson and Lukas Volger
With so much involved in running a restaurant—far beyond just cooking—it can seem like a lot to ask that LGBTQ chefs also be LGBTQ leaders. But many in fact are, and for Pride month at Jarry we thought this might be a useful way to think about who and which establishments we want to support. As we posed the question to nine of them—do they feel they have a responsibility to the queer community?—we’ll admit that we'd often assumed the best in terms of their capacities to act as allies and advocates. But recent controversies have led us to think more critically. How important is it for LGBTQ chefs to make their spaces inclusive and nurturing of queer and marginalized communities? Do they have a responsibility to us? Here’s how they responded.
Anita Lo, Annisa, New York City
As a child of the 60s, I grew up with very few “out” role models and a very narrow, negative view of what it meant to be gay, so I’ve always felt a strong duty to be visible in my identity. As a chef who has had some success in her career, I have the added responsibility of having a platform and of being an industry leader. But I think all human beings should be looking out for the marginalized and less fortunate, and should be standing up and doing their best not to align themselves with those who abuse their power.
At Willa Jean we do our best to make sure everything we do represents and contributes to our community. This city has a history of often forgotten communities, neighborhoods, and citizens and I'd like to think WJ has become a gathering place for intersectionality. I know I don't get it all right all of the time, but I know my responsibility is to try and to be better every damn day. It is also to make WJ the most radically inclusive restaurant space in New Orleans. I do not agree with what's happening in NYC, but I'm choosing to focus my energy on being supportive to the amazing women and overlooked folks around me instead of on anger and confusion.
I definitely feel a responsibility towards my LGBTQ community. As a chef, I have the privilege of feeding all walks of life, everyday. It's my job to be inclusive and to create an environment in which people—both diners and FOH/BOH staff—can feel comfortable as themselves. This industry has always been known as a safe place for "misfits.” I think we forget that sometimes and we need to be more proactive in bringing that back to light. We should be the leading example of an all-inclusive industry, especially given the current changes taking place.
Being an inclusive space has always been part of my whole mission. It's all about being intentional: We’re going to make delicious food, we’re going to make every customer feel amazing, we’re going to respect each other, and we’re going to have a safe work environment. You have to have the same level of intentionality about how you cook, present food, and interact with your guests, as you do about your workspace.
There’s been a sense in the restaurant industry, until very recently, that it's about being as apolitical as possible—you wouldn’t want to alienate any potential customer, so you’re toeing this milquetoast line. That’s just not true. We’ve always taken a stand about what’s going on in our world. We’ve never shied away. No one’s free until we’re all free—that’s the way I see the world, not in an “I’m just out to get mine” mentality. There’s the Dr. King quote: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
It’s important to own your privilege, to know that if they’re coming for other people, eventually they’re going to come for you. To just sit by and be complicit because you have more to gain . . . it’s patriarchy, it’s capitalism at its most grotesque.
Inviting the larger community into MeMe’s once a month at our queer industry night, Family Meal, has been one of my favorite parts about running a restaurant. Libby [Willis, co-owner] and I have been really lucky to partner with some incredible queer people in the industry. We invite them behind our bar and into our kitchen, while raising money for causes they care about.
Besides Family Meal, it’s exciting to walk into the dining room on any given day and see queer people in the seats, working in the kitchen, and behind the bar.
The idea of MeMe’s came from our dinner parties—bringing people together and making them feel comfortable. From the very start, MeMe’s was never going to be a chef-driven restaurant. For us, bringing a queer identity into food means side-stepping a toxic, ego-focused work environment and choosing collaboration and community. We’re a small team, and every single person is important to our guests’ experience. What makes MeMe’s community work is how our whole team functions together.
Elise Kornack, Take Root, Brooklyn, NY
Anna [Hieronimus, co-owner of now-closed Take Root] and I have always felt that as queer business owners we have a responsibility to be visible and share our story when given the opportunity. We speak out on topics we are passionate about and refer to people more qualified when we are less in tune with an issue. We are certainly not always at the center of a conversation, or even on the fringe, but we try our best to support the work of anyone who is passionate and knowledgeable with ways to make a significant impact for the betterment of a diverse industry, and, more importantly, one that embraces open dialogue and challenges antiquated industry standards.
It’s a problem that I even have to describe the food and culture that I value—the cultures that have supported me and taught me how to believe in my own value—as marginal.
I work within a system that tries to convince me that I am secondary. I am fed language that refutes my own stake in history and then sells my culture back to me.
I decided to not just work in the food industry but to become a queer, black business owner. I challenge myself to be the kind of business owner I would want my younger, queer, black self to work for. I remember myself at 15 or 16 lacking the confidence and support that I have now. I feel responsible to all of the QPOC folks who never had someone to speak up for them. Cooking is never just about food. We are creating the industry standards that allow for meaningful, tangible connections. Giving back to the cultures that have sustained me and to create a work environment that goes beyond inclusion but instead allows for my peers to thrive and feel heard is what feels urgent to me right now.
I’m very sensitive to my team and I feel it’s important to treat everyone with respect and dignity. In particular, marginalized and/or LGBTQ persons have historically helped each other out and banded together when needed. I’m proud of our team of both the straight and LGBTQ persons that work seamlessly together to get the job done while treating each other with respect.
I think the kitchen culture is set by the leaders in the kitchen. I’ve always been openly gay and work mostly with straight men. They treat me with respect because I treat them with respect as well. They tell me that they love me and give me hugs. It's really amazing. I think younger people (that are not conservative) are so much more open minded about queer culture than ever before.
I definitely feel it is my duty to create a safe and welcoming space for my teammates to excel and succeed. The days of testosterone-dominated kitchens are potentially fading and chefs/owners are wising up quickly that equality in the workplace is the key to success.
As a queer, Latinx non-binary chef, I find that I carry a great sense of responsibility within my work to be a source of positive influence for LGBTQ and other marginalized communities. I am happy to have a platform where I can make an impact by creating a work space where everyone feels safe and understood. I think my line of work allows me to influence the ways in which people understand what it means to be queer and shift the culture within the culinary industry to a more open and accepting place.—Danny
Being a queer Afro-Latino chef has made me hyper aware of my responsibility to use my cis male privilege to shift negative narratives around race, gender, and sexuality. Having a position of leadership has given me the chance to create a safe work environment where marginalized folks can come and thrive in a place where they can be themselves, learn, create, and ideally be able to take that out into the world to pass along to others in our community.—Justin
David Shannon, L’Opossum, Richmond, VA
I have always tried to create a very inclusive environment for all, knowing that visibility on all fronts is key for our LGBTQ community. Being located in a city that was once the capital of the Confederacy, it is important to me to always remain out and LGBTQ-forward in my approach to running L’Opossum.
Aaron Hutcherson is a writer/editor and recipe developer based in New York City. He's a fan of comfort food, whiskey, and intersectionality. You can follow his cooking and eating adventures on Instagram and Twitter.
Lukas Volger is the editorial director of Jarry.
Art credits: "Chefs" graphic by Steve Viksjo inspired by the "QUEER" Instagram sticker by Andy Simmonds, Anita Lo courtesy the chef, Kelly Fields by Gabrielle Geiselman, Jeremy Salamon by Steve Viksjo for Jarry, Preeti Mistry by Sierra Prescott, Bill Clark and Libby Willis by Steve Viksjo for Jarry, Elise Kornack courtesy the chef, DeVonn Francis by Rob Truglia for Jarry, Steven Satterfield by Heidi Geldhauser, Danny Alas and Justin Rodriguez by Colleen Connor, David Shannon courtesy the chef.