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Queer in the kitchen: A frank look at the challenges for LGBTQ chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs
Now-married chefs Ashley Merriman and Gabrielle Hamilton attend an event in New York City in 2015. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Recent coverage of sexual assault in restaurants and bars has brought the back of the house, that once-mysterious interior realm, into the spotlight. Celebrity chefs have fallen from their once-lauded ranks, restaurateurs have lost careers and restaurants have even been renamed to reflect severed ties. With each new case, the #MeToo movement is exposing how the hospitality industry can so often be an uncomfortable — or even dangerous — place for marginalized individuals.

In a system helmed primarily by straight, white, moneyed, cisgender men, how have queer folks navigated this terrain? Even a cursory scan of the field tells us out LGBTQ higher-ups are few and far between. There’s April Bloomfield, Anita Lo, Elizabeth Faulkner, Gabrielle Hamilton, Jeremiah Tower and Art Smith, but ask the average Chef’s Table-worshipping American to name their favorite out-and-proud food and drink titans and they’d be hard-pressed to get to double-digits.

So, where are all the queer chefs, owners, beverage directors and managers? As with most identity-related inequity, much of it boils down to representation — or, really, the lack thereof.

Even when representation exists, it’s not easily recognized

Second-generation restaurateur Andrew Lam grew up fully immersed in the restaurant world. But it wasn’t until adulthood that he realized gay people like him were present in the industry.

“I think the first LGBT chef I ever really encountered was Kristen Kish on Top Chef,” Lam said. Alongside his father and business partner, Lam heads the LGBTQ-focused Six26 Lounge and gastropub the Ashford in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“I actually did a cooking class with her in [Washington, D.C.] and found out after that she was a lesbian,” he continued. “As someone who’s a part of the community, I never once thought, ‘Oh, are there any LGBT chefs out there?’”

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It’s often said that to see yourself in a position of power, you have to see others who look like you do it first. Several industry insiders told Mic that being around other LGBTQ folks played a key role in their career development, especially early on.

“I started cooking when I was maybe 12 years old,” Jerry Traunfeld, chef and owner of Poppy and Lionhead in Seattle, said. “Back in the early ’70s, it was pretty unusual for a boy to want to cook.”

He started his career at a Ernie’s, which he called “a very fancy restaurant, kind of old-school.” “I didn’t feel real comfortable being out there,” he said. Afterward, Traunfeld worked at Stars, which was Jeremiah Tower’s restaurant. “Jeremiah, one of the most famous chefs in San Francisco, was gay. Now that was different, that was pretty cool.”

Traunfeld, who described Stars as a “very comfortable place to work,” said his experience helped him feel more at ease with future employers.

“After I moved back from San Francisco to Seattle, I became the executive chef in a hotel downtown,” Traunfeld said. “I was always very open about being gay and having a boyfriend. It was just sort of part of who I was.”

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Ollie Walleck, a transgender man and executive chef at the Freehand Chicago’s Broken Shaker and Café Integral, had a similar experience with an out mentor.

“One of the first chefs I worked for, she and her partner ran a brunch spot,” Walleck said. “They were both masculine-of-center and definitely held down the lesbian visibility in downtown Cleveland’s restaurant scene. Both of them had grown up in the area [and] both of them had worked at the Westside market, an 120-year-old closed food market that’s had generations upon generations of families sell there. They just ingrained themselves in that community and were like, ‘Yep, that’s us. And if you have anything to say about it, keep your mouth closed.’

“I found that to be really impressive, and that’s kind of what I want to do now for others,” Walleck added. “I want to be a very visible trans chef.”

A lack of out mentors was one of the reasons Caitlin Laman, beverage director for Chicago’s Ace Hotel, co-founded Chicago Style, a cocktail conference focused on inclusivity and intersectionality within the hospitality industry.

“I’ve had a number of mentors over the years, and they’ve always been straight white cis men, because that’s what succeeds in America and specifically in our industry,” said Laman. “We’re definitely not flush with a very inclusive community, as far as in management and ownership roles.”

Queer visibility has the power to pave a path toward success for future generations. But for the most part, the encounters described above took place on an individual level. There isn’t an organized critical mass young people can turn to for mentorship or even to simply see their futures realized.

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That obvious missing piece was one of several factors that motivated writer Julia Turshen to create Equity at the Table, an online database of women and gender nonconforming professionals in the food industry, with a special focus on people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ. The website’s sortable profiles include cooks, mixologists, food purveyors, journalists, publicists and lawyers. As Turshen said via email, she intended to create a “useful resource that purposely centers the people and voices that are so often ignored and silenced.”

“I very intentionally bring my full self to my work, which includes my identity as a proud gay woman,” Turshen said. “It’s very meaningful to me to know what it means to other women to see the word ‘wife’ written so often by another woman in a mainstream cookbook.”

“I do think the patriarchy is being questioned and challenged in ways it never has been before, and I think that’s making a lot of people very uncomfortable,” she said. “I am, for whatever it’s worth, all for the discomfort.”

When harassment is the status quo

While a connection to LGBTQ communities makes a significant difference for some, the everyday experience of working in the industry still presents plenty of obstacles.

“I can remember being on the line and asking a fellow cook for help lifting a 50-gallon stockpot or something ridiculous like that and having responses like, ‘Well, I guess you need a man for something,’” Karen Akunowicz, executive chef and partner at Myers + Chang in Boston, said. “My blood would just be boiling. I would just be so angry, trying not to dignify [it] with a response.”

Walleck was subject to some other uncomfortable exchanges at work. He started in the industry as an out gay woman well before he transitioned, a journey that gives him a distinct perspective on the machismo culture within restaurants.

“I was openly gay since I was about 13,” Walleck said. “And even though I was ‘one of the guys’ at work, there was always that thing of like, ‘But we could still fuck her, right?’ I was still a sexual object at the end of the day. I pretty much started transitioning when I moved out to Portland, and it’s kind of funny how quickly I rose up through leadership once I started being perceived as male. The biggest changes I really saw were people laughing more at my jokes, people listening more intently when I spoke. I didn’t have to fight as much for space, and that’s really shitty. There’s this whole social strata that comes along with it that you can’t ignore.”

Traditionally, the professional kitchen follows a military-esque hierarchical model. That atmosphere can breed a culture that discourages exhibiting any kind of weakness, whether it be physical, mental or emotional. Instead, stereotypically masculine traits (toughness, competitiveness, dominance) are prized. Being unable to fit within those margins can make someone feel particularly vulnerable — and deconstructing that dynamic is something these pros are dead set on.

“Being trans, I developed pretty quickly a spidey sense of what is a safe environment for me to be open about my experiences and when should I just not,” said Walleck. “Even if it’s in the realm of being innocuous, it can still be really alienating. I want people to know my kitchen is a safe space for everyone to be absolutely themselves.”

“I want people to know my kitchen is a safe space for everyone to be absolutely themselves,” said Ollie Walleck

“We’ve all worked in an industry for a really long time where those kinds of attitudes toward harassment were considered normal,” said Akunowicz. “We all, especially the folks who hold a lot of power or hold ownership, need to be speaking up and working toward change.”

The stakes are even higher for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. “There are people in really dire situations where if someone slaps them on the ass, they’re not going to say anything because they need a job,” said Laman.

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“It’s really important to us that our friends who are straight, white, male bar owners attend and listen because I know a lot of them are really good-intentioned and might not even know that this stuff is happening,” said Laman in reference to the conference.

The importance of going public

Several restaurant professionals spoke about their dedication to staying firmly out of the closet no matter the consequences. “It was always really important to me to be out,” Akunowicz said. “Even in my first couple of cooking jobs, I wasn’t going to, as we used to say, play the pronoun game, like specifically not say like, ‘she,’ or, ‘my girlfriend.’ I was never going to live my life that way, even if it was detrimental my career.”

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Akunowicz carried that commitment over to her role on Bravo’s Top Chef empire. The long-running reality show stands out as having a particularly diverse cast over the years, which was one of the reasons the already-accomplished chef signed on.

“We all want to see ourselves represented, right?” she said. “Knowing that the show and the network was supportive definitely drew me to it. It was really important for me to be out as a queer person because I think that we have seen, slowly but surely, a lot of gay folks and lesbians and folks that are bisexual but we haven’t really seen a lot of folks that identify as queer. And also my spouse is gender nonconforming and uses they/them pronouns and it was really important to me to speak to that on the show.”

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Traunfeld similarly used his Top Chef spin-off appearance to speak out about gay rights. “As chefs, we constantly get asked to donate or give our time to different causes and I’ve always given priority to gay organizations,” he explained. “When I was on Top Chef Masters, we had to choose a charity so I chose what was then called the IGLHRC — the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Campaign. I felt really strongly about that.”

Creating change from the top down

As a restaurateur, Lam sees how building a diverse crew can have huge impact not only in the kitchen but also out on the floor. “Basically, how do we create a team where anyone can come in and feel comfortable because they can identify with someone, and they can see the diversity,” he said about the hiring process at his Jersey City spots and NYC haunt Chinese Tuxedo, another family venture. “You have to have talent, you have to be able to do your job. But then we also do think about how we just lost two women behind the bar, or we lost an LGBT person in the kitchen, and how can we fix that.”

Having spent decades in the kitchen, Traunfeld has seen the industry broaden its scope from beginning to accept gay people to gradually extending that acceptance to other queer-identified folks. “My current chef is trans and so are a few of my cooks, and it hasn’t been an issue at all,” he said. “Ten years ago it would have been a weird thing, and now all my other cooks, they don’t even think about it. They just have to get the pronouns right. I mean, I guess if they weren’t okay with it, they wouldn’t be working for me.”

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And if your staff occupies a spectrum of identities, your clientele, it seems, will start to mirror that, in turn promoting LGBTQ inclusion on a much more widespread level. “I’ve never worked in a gay bar, but I have intentionally made a lot of the bars that I’ve worked at gay-er by hiring people and getting the right clientele,” Laman explained. “I know that I’m a hell of a lot more comfortable when I go into a bar and there’s not only a diverse staff but a diverse clientele. I don’t wanna sit in a bar that’s all straight white men. That’s not fun for me.”