Five years ago, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements called out top chefs and personalities for perpetrating alleged sexual harassment and abuse and for allowing the behavior to thrive in their hyper-masculine restaurant kitchens.
But did the movement improve kitchens for LGBTQ chefs, especially transgender chefs?
OUTvoices spoke with trans chefs about their experiences working in restaurants and commercial kitchens recently. Many of the chefs said kitchen environments are starting to change, but it depends on the leadership which is why many of these chefs have struck out on their own. They’ve opened restaurants, catering businesses, and food products to create the kitchens of their dreams: nurturing and supportive environments where the trans and queer people feel safe and can thrive cooking up their culinary creations.
Acceptance in Nontraditional Kitchens
Acceptance in fine dining to fast-food restaurants is hard to come by for many trans restaurant workers, especially in the kitchen.
It is unknown how many trans chefs work in kitchens. Statistics about the number of LGBTQ chefs, let alone trans chefs, and their experiences working in restaurants to commercial kitchens do not exist. There are only a few articles highlighting trans chefs.
Many trans chefs said they found acceptance in nontraditional kitchens, such as food banks or vegetarian or vegan restaurants. When they aspired to broaden their skills and horizons in fine dining or at chain restaurants, acceptance became hard to come by.
Trans chefs echo each other when they talk about their experiences in the kitchen. Some trans and gender-nonconforming kitchen staff are able to hide behind their aprons, but for others, especially trans women, it’s not so simple. Many trans women chefs talk about not being allowed to be comfortable in their gender identity at work with managers denying them to wear makeup or dresses. Some talked about being groped in the kitchen and enduring anti-transgender comments and jokes.
Finding Yourself and Being Comfortable
Restauranteurs chef Telly Justice, right, and sommelier Camille Lindsley, left, are about to open New York’s first-ever queer fine dining restaurant, Hags.Photo Credit Courtesy of Hags
Trans chef Telly Justice found community, herself, and a career at vegetarian and vegan cafes in the South before venturing into fine dining.
“It was like a Petri dish for growth and development as a person,” said Justice, 35, who started out at the age of 18 with no culinary skills. Born and raised outside of Philadelphia, she fled to South Carolina working in vegetarian kitchens before making the leap to fine dining working her way up in kitchens in Savannah and Atlanta before ultimately landing in New York.
Justice is now a restauranteur about to open Hags, a queer fine dining restaurant in New York, with her business and life partner sommelier Camille Lindsley, a 29-year-old queer woman.
Justice said the warm and welcoming environment she found in the vegetarian restaurants quickly faded once she entered fine dining to build her culinary chops.
“I wanted to grow. I wanted to learn more,” she said. “I didn’t see how my identity in these spaces would be handled any differently.
“It was very shocking to me moving into these fine dining establishments,” Justice said. Being out and proud expressing her transness and queerness “was very, very, very discouraged.”
Then there were the anti-trans and queer comments by her co-workers.
“I would say a lot of the transphobia and homophobia that I experienced was not necessarily pointed or specific to me. It was cultural due to the nature of the work,” she said beginning to cry as she recalled moments. “The space is so profoundly oriented to straight men, that they don’t even consider what their actions do to other people. For them, it’s all in fun. It’s this boys club. I don’t think that they are actively aware of the damage that male bonding does to people that are not straight, white men.”
Yet, she doesn’t believe the abuse was done maliciously calling the harshest abuses “accidental abuses” that happened while she was in the room.
The lack of awareness and hostility wears on LGBTQ people, especially trans people, making many trans chefs walk away from the hospitality industry.
“It’s incredibly difficult to stay in this career field for over a decade when every day you just know that you’re going to be the only person in the room who looks like you,” Justice said.
Abuse in Commercial Kitchens
Marino Benedetto, nonbinary chef, founder, and owner of Yeah Dawg, vegan hot dogs
Photo credit: Heather Cassell
Restaurant kitchens aren’t the only kitchens trans chefs experience harassment. Some commercial kitchens in the food industry are rife with similar abuse.
Marino Benedetto, 39-year-old nonbinary chef, founder, and owner of Yeah Dawg, vegan hot dogs, in Brooklyn was relieved when the commercial kitchen he operated out of closed in 2020.
Benedetto entered the culinary world by working in restaurants when he was 18-years old.
“When I first started working in restaurants, it was so much worse than it is now,” Benedetto told OUTvoices about enduring sexual harassment.
Once he complained to a woman supervisor about a “guy touching my ass” in the kitchen. Her response was, “Oh, that’s just how they are. They don’t mean anything by it. Just don’t let it get to you, he said.
“As a queer kid, it was horrible,” Benedetto said about the harassment on top of the 60-hour workweek, low pay, and no benefits.
“I did it for a bunch of years and all it did was burn me out and made me unhealthy,” Benedetto told OUTvoices.
Benedetto was able to get the work-life balance he desired when he launched Yeah Dawg in 2013. But he didn’t get away from sexist and anti-trans harassment in the kitchen despite hoping the environment in a commercial kitchen would be different. He was harassed for being transgender by other business owners working in the kitchen as he transitioned with no support from the kitchen’s management.
“They would make fun of me like, ‘Oh, you have a mustache now,'” he said. “They would say things like ‘We like lesbians when they look like women, but when they look like that. It’s not cute.'”
After six years, Benedetto found a better commercial kitchen, that is all-vegan, and is more aligned with his values.
“It’s just a different environment. It feels great. I feel better having staff working there,” he said about not wanting his staff to experience the harassment he endured. “It’s been a long road. Now, I’m happy where we’re at.”
Finding Harmony in the Kitchen
In the kitchen cooking up vegetarian delights, restaurateur and chef Nat
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Café Flora
Trans chefs following their passion into the heat of the kitchen is a struggle for many, but it isn’t every trans chef’s experience.
Trans chef Nat Stratton-Clarke, who owns Café Flora‘s family of bakeries and restaurants in Seattle, had positive experiences.
A Berkeley native, Stratton-Clarke, worked in kitchens starting at Ann Walker Catering in Marin in the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 16-years old. He continued working in kitchens when he headed East for college at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. Studying social justice, Stratton-Clarke thought his love for food was going to be a hobby, not a career path, but the pull of the kitchen was too strong. He continued to work in kitchens in Massachusetts and in New York before settling in Seattle. Stratton-Clarke started working for Café Flora, one of America’s first vegetarian restaurants and a popular local spot in Seattle’s Madison Valley neighborhood, and eventually was given the opportunity to own the nearly 30-year-old restaurant.
“It was Cafe Flora that really made me realize that I can actually do both,” said Stratton-Clarke, who didn’t always have an easy time in the kitchen. “I can be part of the culinary world and participate in social justice movements. You can combine your loves.”
Stratton-Clarke told OUTvoices before becoming the owner of Café Flora and its siblings The Flora Bakehouse and Floret, at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, he worked in kitchens that were unaccepting and accepting that he is transgender, he said.
“Definitely, being trans in this industry has had its challenges and kitchens can definitely be a challenging place to be,” said Stratton-Clarke who admitted he worked in some kitchens where “it was really, really hard” and other kitchens where “they were totally great.”
What made the biggest difference for him in the kitchen was accepting himself.
“For me, it was a huge moment of accepting who I am,” he said. “It also made me able to follow my passions and be the person that I am today.”
Trans Chef Chris Trapani, left, owner of Urban Cowboy Catering serving his culinary creations at an event.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Urban Cowboy Catering
Trans chef Chris Trapani, who owns Urban Cowboy food truck in Austin, also had a positive experience in the most unlikely place when he transitioned, he told Eater. He was 30-years old at the time and working for an Alabama-based company.
Alabama is making headlines for passing anti-trans bills to block trans youth from obtaining hormone blockers and a surprise “Don’t Say Gay” amendment to a transgender bathroom bill April 7. Alabama still doesn’t have an anti-discrimination law like many states. Until 2020, when the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act includes protecting LGBTQ employees, transgender people could still be fired for being trans as well as their gay, lesbian, and bisexual peers. The Equality Act is still making its way through Congress.
“I didn’t know how they were going to react, or if they would understand,” but his employer and clients supported him, Trapani told Eater.
It was long before he became the first known transgender chef to appear on the Food Network’s “Chopped: Great Food Truck Race” in the United States in 2014. Four years later he took India by storm as a guest of Indian gay-owned hospitality leader LaLit Hotels, Palaces, and Resorts developing the concept for the LaLit Food Truck Company and appeared on India’s Food Network.
Learning to Grow While Staying in Your Hometown
Some trans chefs aren’t leaving their hometowns to find acceptance and community in big cities but forging a path in the places they grew up.
Trans chef and writer Stacy Jane Grover wrote an essay about fellow trans chef, who she only identified as Astrid, and her experiences in the kitchen in Bitch Magazine last year.
The Appalachian Ohio trans chefs found themselves and their calling in the kitchen and decided to stay in their local community rather than striking out to the big city.
Grover escaped the transphobia of her high school early into culinary school. Astrid escaped directly into the kitchen.
Grover found she could hide her body behind the androgynous apron and focus on developing her cooking skills. It eventually allowed her to come out to the support of her classmates.
“Cooking taught me that my body-one that had produced only shame and confusion-could produce joy,” Grover wrote.
Like Grover, Astrid explained, “In the kitchen, I fit in.”
Astrid learned that she could be accepted for her abilities through criticism, hard work, camaraderie, teamwork, and how to speak up for herself in the kitchen.
The kitchen is where both trans women chefs found confidence in their cooking skills and the ability to be themselves at work.
Despite harassment and not feeling like they could be out trans women in their towns, Astrid explained to Grover that she never considered leaving her community, her family, and the regional restaurant scene.
“I never really thought to go anywhere else. Any type of restaurant and any level of service from casual to fine dining can be found here. This is where I’m from, so why would I leave?” Astrid said.
Grover returned to Appalachian Ohio after culinary school and discovered by creating her culinary career where she was born and raised that, “Food has reconnected me with a place I thought had shunned me,” she wrote.
These chefs along with other queer chefs struck out on their own to shape and redefine harsh abusive kitchen environments in their own vision. Their audacity and bravery as well as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements five years later are inspiring changes for some fine dining and chain restaurants’ kitchens to extend hospitality beyond guests to staff.
Increasingly queerer and kinder kitchens are rising across the country. Small restaurants to bigger restaurant brands kitchens are envisioning and modeling a more hospitable and supportive environment for staff in the back and front of the house.
How to Make Sure Everyone Feels Safe
Chef Surbhi Sahni, queer owner of Tagmo in New York, says she’s creating a safe space for LGBTQ people of color to work in the restaurant industry. She is doing that by allowing staff the “freedom to be themselves” but beyond that having “respect for wherever they are,” in their personal and professional journey, she said.
Executive Chef Hillary Sterling at Ci Siamo, restauranteur Danny Meyer’s latest addition to the Union Square Hospitality Group‘s fine dining establishments in New York City, is happy to be an out lesbian chef.
Her presence “really kind of shows people that it is possible” to be a leader as a gay woman. Part of that is “making sure that our community feels safe and comfortable,” she said fully aware that her team attracts other talented queer people and women.
“A lot of people do want to come here because it is a safe environment, they can be who they are, and free,” Sterling said noting that it is just as important to welcome staff like welcoming guests to the restaurant. “The hospitality industry is about welcoming guests into your business just as much welcoming your team and giving them that same service and support as you would any guest.”
Word is spreading. Employees at Hags and Yeah Dawg come from word of mouth, Benedetto and Justice said. Tagmo has optimized community service and social media posting employment listings on the Facebook group, Queer-Friendly NYC Employment Opportunities, to attract employees.
“I’ve only worked with a handful of trans cooks in my entire career and I would say predominantly they are all in the past two years,” said Justice, who is excited to work with the restaurant’s queer and trans staff. “So, to see that happening at all is just an absolute revelation for me in my career.”
Hags and Tagmo in New York, Kismet in Los Angeles, and Café Flora in Seattle to Ci Siamo are leading the way. Bigger brands, such as sandwich chain Panera Bread, and Mexican franchise El Pollo Loco, are also paving the path forward.
Things are changing for the better, while a disconnect between leadership and workers continues the calls for more equitable and dignified workplaces are starting to be heard.
“The work is emerging it’s still being pushed towards a place of equitability,” Justice said. She believes a watershed moment for inclusion in the kitchen is coming, but “we’re still like very far away.”
To push the movement forward faster, Justice said she would love to see white male chefs to stand up for trans and queer chefs and kitchen workers.
“I would love to see them kind of taking the gauntlet and paving a path for people that don’t look like them or occupy a different space,” she said.
How to Find Support for Inclusive Workplaces
Support is available for restaurants and commercial kitchens to become more welcoming and inclusive for LGBTQ employees, including nonbinary gender workers, through New York-based HospitableMe and Los Angeles-based TransCanWork.
Founded in 2016 by trans woman Michaela Mendelsohn, TransCanWork has provided 500 employers and 2,500 job-seekers throughout the United States with the training to ensure comfortable work environments for gender-expansive employees and guests.
TransCanWork calls transgender, gender-variant and intersex people TGI.
Mendelsohn is familiar with the restaurant industry and TGI people’s struggles in the industry. She owns and manages six El Pollo Loco franchises in Southern California, reported the New York Times. She has hired 50 trans employees, most of them women of color, at her restaurants over the last several years.
Mendelsohn also worked to make cultural sensitivity training to recognize anti-LGBTQ harassment California law, with Senate Bill (SB) 396 in 2017. Then California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law which went into effect in 2018