Life

How queer chefs are rewriting the recipe for success

Dominique Crenn
Dominique Crenn. Photo by Amanda Demme.

A fresh culinary ethos is taking root on First Avenue and Tenth Street in Manhattan’s East Village. When the compact fine-dining restaurant HAGS opened earlier this summer, its co-owners, executive chef Telly Justice and beverage director Camille Lindsley, proclaimed the enterprise “by queer people for all people.” 

The same location once housed Momofuku Noodle Bar, where allegations of abusive behavior surfaced. The space’s recent transformation is a palate-cleansing sign of the times. 

But it’s not just the restaurant’s physical makeover — which includes a whimsical restroom funhouse mirror, quirky menu art, a curated playlist, and a voluptuous chartreuse velvet curtain floating over the tiny bar like a nightclub act about to begin — that’s notable. The vibe conveys a new kind of narrative from the moment guests pass through the hand-painted front door to discover a small dish of preferred-pronoun buttons as part of the table setting. 

HAGS NYC
Justice says the restaurant industry “so desperately needs a queer touch and a queer eye.” Photo by Amy Mayes Photography for LGBTQ Nation.

Justice and Lindsley, partners in both business and life, explain that their 20-seat dining experience is built on meaningful participation by its team, vendors, and guests. Queerness is not merely an amuse-bouche, but rather a main course that centers the unique ways in which both staff and guests inhabit the space. The result of HAGS’s embedded LGBTQ nature? Diverse patrons can enjoy dining free of self-conscious identity politics, with attention squarely on Justice’s modern culinary approach, which draws influence from seasonal ingredients and partnerships with local farmers and purveyors.

This may sound more like a manifesto than a fine-dining affair. Yet the proprietors are equally focused on culinary innovation — Justice previously worked under molecular gastronomy chef Wylie Dufresne, and Lindsley is a sommelier. They seem to be entirely of the moment: restaurateurs integrating their values both on and off the table.

Today’s restaurant industry is seeing a tide of similar changes in the kitchen, in front-of-house operations, and on dining tables. Queerness is no longer merely tolerated but, in the case of HAGS, front and center. When individuals — particularly creatives and small business owners — feel empowered to fully express themselves without fear of discrimination or abuse, they not only succeed but also establish inclusive environments for the next generation.

In light of HAGS’s queer-positive operation, the notion of “the closet” sounds almost antiquated. Today’s community of nonbinary affirmation, pansexual identities, and pronoun etiquette means that even in regressive states, where saying “gay” or being trans is nearly outlawed, the closet still may exist, but the door blew off long ago.

HAGS NYC
Co-owners Telly Justice, left, and Camille Lindsley outside of their new queer fine-dining restaurant, HAGS. Photo by Amy Mayes Photography for LGBTQ Nation.

Yet even in decidedly progressive dining destinations like New York City and San Francisco, queer chefs still face the bro culture of cis, hetero white guys with hit restaurants that may dazzle patrons at the expense of their staff. A June 2022 survey by One Fair Wage, the national wage-fairness coalition, revealed that over 80 percent of LGBTQ restaurant workers reported experiencing or witnessing homophobic and transphobic comments in the workplace, the majority of it coming from supervisors, colleagues, or customers.

For employees, fair treatment and a safe workplace are more critical than ever before. Fine-dining kitchens everywhere have had to take stock of their cultures after the 2017 surge of sexual harassment allegations against such famous chef-restaurateurs such as Ken Friedman, Mario Batali, and John Besh. 

Even in 2022, restaurant and bar employees continue to battle against workplace abuse, whether it’s the half-million-dollar worker-abuse settlement by the owner of Manhattan bar Sweet & Vicious or the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Eater feature about Dan Barber’s staff mistreatment and one male employee’s alleged rape by a restaurant manager.

“The stigma of being queer while cooking in a fine-dining restaurant really persisted well into this decade,” John Birdsall, author of 2020’s The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, told LGBTQ Nation. “At the top of the fine-dining pyramid, I think there’s less freedom for queer chefs to be as out, as open, as expressive with both their food and with details of their lives as it is especially for straight white male chefs. Restaurants that have big investors and aspire to Michelin stars, they’re still very conservative workplaces with traditional structures.”

But for some chefs, coming out of the closet — or for younger folks, never experiencing the closet — unleashes incredible creativity in their cooking.

Related: Eric Kim on coming out, the perfect fried chicken, and why he prefers a round table

“Ever since I came out, I’ve felt a freedom to express myself despite cultural norms,” Rob Connoley, award-winning chef-owner of Bulrush in St. Louis, told LGBTQ Nation. “In the professional kitchen, which tends to have a very heteronormative, power-centric vibe, being unabashedly myself forces those around me to accept it or get the hell out of the way — because I have big things to do with my cooking. Like so many others, I’ve had to push to be the best, so I can ignore or cast aside the detractors.”

Rob Connoley
Chef Rob Connoley at Bulrush in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Bulrush.

Through years of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and other social and civil rights movements, kitchens have evolved in a hurry. The French “brigade” system — a rigid framework for maximum kitchen efficiency — may still rule serious restaurants, as long as it is focus and perfection running down the line, and not workplace abuse and discrimination.

“Ever since I came out, I’ve felt a freedom to express myself despite cultural norms.”

Chef Rob Connoley

Connoley’s perspective extends beyond his executive chef workstation. With a Ph.D. in sports psychology and 17 years of experience in the nonprofit sector writing multimillion-dollar grants, he became disillusioned with the systemic structures that kept resources from those in need. His well-traveled relatives instilled a sense of empathy from a young age. “Even my mom and dad, who would not have been considered liberal by the time period — the ‘70s and ‘80s — they were very middle of the road,” Connolly said. “But they also were always fighting for the underdog. And I think that brings a level of compassion and awareness that really affects how you make decisions in your life.”

Connoley was determined to bring that same ethos to opening Bulrush.

The resulting sense of equity in this revised professional construct is a jolt of hope for diverse talent. It’s also an opportunity for executive chefs and restaurateurs to embrace new gastronomic creativity.

“I think most queer people, we’re very creative,” said Roberto Santibañez, chef-owner of the modern Mexican restaurant Fonda, with three locations throughout New York City, along with Mi Vida and The Grill (culinary director), both in Washington D.C. His dishes, like enchiladas with braised chicken and stoneground Oaxacan black mole sauce, pay homage to the past while also opening the door to new interpretations that have kept guests coming back for more than a decade.

“I think we put our stamp on things; it’s inevitable,” Santibañez told LGBTQ Nation. “Why are we more creative? I think it’s because we have a different vision of the world ever since we were very little. I think being creators gives us a lot of power to succeed and to be happy in what we do.”

Roberto Santibanez
(clockwise, from left) Roberto Santibañez, made-to-order guacamole, and a selection of Fonda’s signature dishes. Photos courtesy of Fonda.

Santibañez grew up in Mexico City and says he was fortunate that his family accepted him. His culinary path began by spending time in the kitchen with his mother, aunt, and other women in his family who stoked his passion for cooking. “I never wanted to do anything else,” he said.

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“Why are we more creative? I think it’s because we have a different vision of the world since we were very little.”

Chef Roberto Santibañez

Santibañez’s neighborhood restaurants survived the pandemic, New York City’s devastating 2012 Hurricane Sandy, and other hard times thanks in large part to loyal LGBTQ diners. And though he’s devoted to his community, he prefers to operate apolitically, calling food “cultural and inclusive” as a common human need for nourishment. “I’m always telling my younger chefs, We have a very particular task in life: We feed people. That’s a tremendous responsibility,” Santibañez said.

James Beard’s larger-than-life legacy

Chefs like Justice, Connoley, and Santibañez follow a growing legacy of LGBTQ chefs like Art Smith, Anita Lo, and Susan Feniger. But it is James Beard’s larger-than-life personality and culinary prowess that established him as the “dean of American cookery.”

James Beard
James Beard has been called the ‘dean of American cookery. Photo by Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

By the mid-1950s, Beard was well on his way to becoming one of the first celebrity chefs. He wrote several popular cookbooks, hobnobbed with Julia Child and Alice B. Toklas, parlayed his theater background into a short-lived cooking show on NBC, and was building up his new James Beard Cooking School. Pupils streamed through his Greenwich Village townhouse kitchen classroom to learn Beard’s pioneering culinary styles. His contemporaries hailed him as the quintessential American cook, endearing and jovial, well-traveled and inspirational.

In this century, Beard’s life’s work lives on through his namesake foundation, established by his peers in 1986, the year after he died. The coveted James Beard Foundation Awards are bestowed on outstanding chefs, restaurateurs, and writers in early May as a celebration of Beard’s birthday, May 5. His face graces the award medallion, granted to recipients who spotlight “James Beard Award winner” in their bios with as much pride as their culinary degrees. 

But on the flipside of Beard’s kitchen walls was his other life, shared for more than 30 years with his life companion, architect Gino Cofacci. Through all the public achievements and accolades, Beard navigated a world that refused to accept his queer identity.

“It was an open secret that James Beard was gay,” Birdsall said. “He defied the main gender stereotypes about food and cooking during his lifetime. He defied the strict and hard rules of domestic life in the United States during the Cold War. Yet his queerness really informed every aspect of his life … There was the idea of ‘the closet’ as a kind of thin but stubborn membrane. And I think that made him fascinating to the general public.”

James Beard and Julia Child
Julia Child, far left, and James Beard, far right, during the 1968 Fish Expo at the WGBH-TV studio in Boston on Oct. 18, 1968. Photo by William Ryerson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Beard’s notoriety and immense culinary success won over early food editors, fellow authors, and peers who either ignored his sexuality, knew but didn’t mind, or appreciated it. In that journey, Beard may have stayed in the closet — but his was the first strike to break the mold for future queer chefs.

Beard’s paradox has long been familiar to many boundary-pushing queer creators. No matter what industry, success appears more attainable for those who adhere to the cis-heteronormative paradigm. To venture beyond it is to risk those rare times when preparation and opportunity intersect.

Related: A queer Asian revolution is happening in Hollywood and, honestly, it’s about damn time

However, as many of today’s queer chefs are discovering, being out and leaning into the most unbridled form of creative expression can reap the greatest rewards. For some, like Justice and Lindsley of HAGS, identity appears on the plate and hovers in the air. For others, such as Dominique Crenn, multiple James Beard Foundation Award winner and America’s only female three-star Michelin chef, it’s about cooking and living in a mindset where sexuality, gender, and other identities become second nature — subtle but no less present. 

“I walk the walk, and talk the talk,” Crenn told LGBTQ Nation. “Atelier Crenn is my life and my emotions on the plate. I feel that we can’t truly be ourselves until we share our story.”

Dominique Crenn
Dominique Crenn at the 2017 New York City Wine & Food Festival. Photo by Chance Yeh/Getty Images for NYCWFF.

The double minority’s recipe for success

Crenn and other female chefs have a further burden to bear. Before Beard’s heyday, food and cooking were matters of utility and survival. Birdsall explains that in the mid-20th century, the “rigid nuclear family” relied on male breadwinners and female homemakers. Women were the day-to-day home cooks, the “home economists,” as Birdsall calls them. “Women were sort of the nation’s experts on nutrition, following a budget, feeding a family, and learning to use these fancy home appliances.”

At Manhattan’s TAGMO, chef-owner Surbhi Sahni serves authentic, homestyle Indian food that represents her own roots and “unsung-hero” homemakers who cook comfort dishes “that are never represented on the larger platform,” Sahni told LGBTQ Nation. She uses her restaurant as a community gathering place, bringing in queer DJs for Pride and other events. But as ever, the food is central.

“Food itself is universal,” Sahni said. “I don’t think that food can be queer, but the process of putting it together can be queer. The way you construct a menu can be queer. The way you serve the community can be queer.”

Her own coming-out experience led Sahni to re-evaluate her modern style of cooking before opening TAGMO in September 2021 and launching an online business selling small-batch mithai, Indian sweets typically made with nuts, dried fruits, and aromatic spices. She aimed to dig down to her roots and “really explore this idea of what true Indian food is,” she said. “Talking about the importance of these regional dishes and how [they] connect to who I am and to my soul, where there’s a bit of crossover. That is queer … and more inclusive.”

TAGMO NYC
(clockwise, from left) Roohafza Spritz, TAGMO’s dining room, and Haleem on Toast. Photos courtesy of TAGMO and Molly Tavoletti.

But for women especially, too much noticeable soul-searching may peg them as “emotional.” That patriarchal stereotype can be exacerbated for lesbian chefs facing old-school homophobia. 

“We should always be our authentic self. It’s important to use your platform to show others that they are represented and make a better world,” said Crenn, who released her memoir Rebel Chef in 2020. Adopted at just under a year old, Crenn took to the kitchen at a young age when her mother became ill and later found inspiration through her father’s friend, food critic Albert Coquil. At 24, Crenn left France for San Francisco, and it was there that the budding chef witnessed female chefs like Alice Waters and Tracy Des Jardins gaining notoriety. 

Engaged to girlfriend Maria Bello since 2019 and diagnosed with breast cancer the same year (she is now cancer-free), the high-spirited celebrity lights up a room — or a TV studio. Crenn recently appeared on the Food Network reboot Iron Chef Showdown, in which cooking competition fans could relish in her self-proclaimed “poetic culinaria.”

A new roster of queer chefs are following in Crenn’s lead, due in large part to visibility through reality TV cooking competitions like Top Chef. Currently filming its 20th-anniversary season in London, the show has provided a platform for chefs from a range of backgrounds and experiences. Season 1 finalist Tiffani Faison, season 10 winner Kristen Kish (currently appearing as a guest judge on Antoni Porowski’s Easy-Bake Battle on the Food Network), and multi-time finalist Gregory Gourdet are among the dozens of queer competitors who have capitalized on their niche celebrity to further their careers as food personalities and restaurateurs.

But carefully curated TikTok videos and Instagram stories celebrating a new menu item or culinary experience tell only part of the story. LGBTQ restaurateurs are using their leadership positions to redefine the dining experience from the inside out.

Next-Gen gastronomy

After experiencing workplace discrimination and abuse early in her career at San Francisco’s Campton Place, Crenn vowed that her restaurant would be different. “For me, I wanted to be the opposite of what I was seeing in a lot of restaurants. I needed to bring light, beauty, love, and respect into the kitchen,” Crenn said of her fine dining outpost Atelier Crenn.

“I wanted to be the opposite of what I was seeing in a lot of restaurants. I needed to bring light, beauty, love, and respect into the kitchen.”

Chef Dominique Crenn

In a recent GayCities interview, Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions executive chef Gaby Maeda agreed, saying, “There’s no room for scolding. It’s really distracting and doesn’t make the food cook any faster or taste any better. There’s a difference between leading by fear and working when you’re scared versus leading with respect and wanting to work hard for someone because you actually respect people.”

For Connoley of Bulrush, sourcing local ingredients adds another layer of complexity. Though the restaurant is located in more liberal St. Louis, the farmers and ranchers Connoley partners with to create his hyperlocal and seasonal Ozark cuisine are dotted throughout some of Missouri’s most rural and conservative areas. On a recent visit to a pig farmer with whom Connoley had partnered to raise heritage breeds, the pair stood around the deep freezer when the farmer, out of the blue, shared that his cousin was a lesbian. “It was his way of saying, ‘I know you’re gay, and I’m OK with it,’ ” said Connoley. The conversation ended with the farmer sharing his shortlist of “family values,” to which Connoley thought, “Well, you know, that’s the best he could give me.”

Rob Connoley
Chef Rob Connoley works with local breeders and farmers to source his ingredients for his award-winning restaurant Bulrush. Photo by Jay Hemphill.

There’s another consideration in the queer culinary context: the dining experience. Most LGBTQ folks have experienced microagressions or worse at some point in their lives. Diners come to a restaurant to eat, of course, but their treatment and interactions are as key to hooking new regulars as a solid menu.

“Having a space that feels safe is very important. I want to create spaces where people want to come to work, where people in the community feel like they’re a part of my extended family,” Sahni of TAGMO said. “ I came out later in life, and for me, the queer experience is finally finding a family, finally finding a community that I feel I really belong with and I’m comfortable with.”

TAGMO NYC
TAGMO chef and founder Surbhi Sahni, left, and operations director Renee Lee. Photo by Sainatee Suarez.

For Justice and Lindsley at HAGS, dual tasting menus (omnivore and vegan), pay-what-you-can Sundays, and tip-inclusive pricing are among the principals that the pair hopes will establish the restaurant for next-generation diners — which also includes Lindsley’s plans to apply her sommelier certification to “queering the idea of what a wine pairing should be … taking risks, trying to provoke, and also creating something harmonious and enjoyable,” she said. “ ‘Queering’ to me, in a general sense, means approaching something in an unusual or unconsidered perspective — so trying to deviate from what would be expected is essential.”

This approach sheds light on the name HAGS, a double entendre to own the derogatory term for women and the old high school yearbook kicker “Have a good summer!” 

“It makes me think of old witchy women, which is great and definitely something we want to reclaim,” Lindsley said.

The restaurant’s mission, said Justice, is “to meaningfully have a space of luxury and celebration that pays our workers really well, a living wage, and do what we can to be supportive of work–life balance and provide some benefits to the staff.”

HAGS New York City
Sommelier and co-owner Camille Lindsley performing wine service at HAGS. Photo by Amy Mayes Photography for LGBTQ Nation.

A HAGS, dinners Wednesday through Saturday are counterbalanced by a striking difference on Sunday, when Justice practices her culinary daring for pay-what-you-can creations using the week’s remaining ingredients.

“Sunday is a totally different menu,” Lindsley said. “It’s really a day where we’ll do whatever we want.” The pair has been longtime participants in Food Not Bombs, an all-volunteer movement operating in 65 countries that shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in protest to war, poverty, and the destruction of the environment.

“We feel like food is a right,” Lindsley said. “I know that our tasting menu won’t be accessible to everyone all the time. So we want to make sure that we’re giving back to the neighborhood, giving people accessible food, and having people come in, check us out, and not have to pay a steep price for that.” 

HAGS NYC
HAGS co-owners Camille Lindsley, left, and Telly Justice. The East Village space was designed by Sarah Carpenter & Studio. Photo by Amy Mayes for LGBTQ Nation.

And then there’s the culinary viewpoint to which Justice employs a merrily subversive angle, saying the cis-hetero-masculine restaurant industry “so desperately needs a queer touch and a queer eye.” 

The simply outlined menu features one-word headlines like “tomato,” “cabbage,” or “sorghum,” followed by sparse descriptions that hint at what is to arrive on HAGS’s custom-made servicewear. The organic shapes and earth-tone glazes provide a vehicle for impeccably dissected vegetables that hold their own to proteins ranging from high-brow (court bouillon–poached lobster) to humble (slow-cooked pork).

“Working queerly, we center things that are kind of quintessential community traits, like fun, camp, perversion, a disruption of expectation and color.”

Chef Telly Justice

“Working queerly, we center things that are kind of quintessential community traits, like fun, camp, perversion, a disruption of expectation and color. We try to inject play into the food as much as we can,” Justice said. That includes references to kitschy, homespun 1970s-era American veganism, like barbecue tempeh served with spicy sambal and squash. “And beyond all that, we try to make dishes that speak to the incredibly diverse queer community.”

Justice said that time-honored queer vegan potlucks are a cornerstone of HAGS’s menu inspiration, core to her personal journey, and an authentic connection to the larger queer community. Ultimately, however, it just needs to be delicious. Connoley, who’s started to mentor younger chefs and pass the baton, agrees. 

Bulrush
Connoley’s culinary viewpoint is rooted in Ozark tradition through historical research and locally sourced ingredients. Photos courtesy of Bulrush.

“I would say the vast majority of chefs and cooks are copying other people. I’m able to look at most dishes and say, ‘Oh, well, here’s the linkages, the chef DNA that ultimately got to that dish.’ And so you don’t see originality or authenticity very often,” said Connoley. “Ultimately, you have to truly believe in yourself. Not like, ‘I’m a great chef,’ but like, ‘I’m gonna do this, even if it’s not popular, even if it doesn’t make sense, even if it’s not what I’ve ever seen on a plate before, because it’s me.’ You can’t do that if you’re not living your true self.”

Can a diner recognize queer food the same as for a particular ethnic cuisine? Possibly.

“We take the same ingredients that everyone else does, and we apply our cultural lens to them, just like a French chef would or an Italian chef would,” Justice said. “We say, Hey tomato, what weird, crazy, wild, wacky queer thing am I going to do with you today? And just let ourselves interact with that ingredient.”

HAGS’s approach would probably get James Beard’s stamp of approval, considering his later-in-life attempts to live more out and openly. His queer legacy may have been modest, but his cooking eminence was inextricably tied to it. There’s no doubt Beard’s struggle helped set the table for what’s happening today.

“There’s very much been a huge generational shift. Younger generations have just exploded so many boundaries and are being so expressive,” Birdsall, the author, said. “It is a food and restaurant culture right now that celebrates identity. And I think it’s beautiful to see queer chefs pick that up and really celebrate queerness in so many ways. 

Editor’s note: Since this story was first commissioned, HAGS has closed temporarily due to structural and plumbing issues in the building. Co-owners Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley are collaborating on pop-ups and culinary residencies until its re-opening.

 

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer, and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, feature journalism, art, theater, architecture, construction, and LGBTQ interests.

Additional contributions by Matthew Wexler.