The 2019 F&W Best New Chef opens up about building a queer kitchen, their trans pride, and the future of restaurants.

By Paxx Caraballo Moll, as told to Maria Yagoda
June 23, 2020
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Ramona Rosales

This story is part of "Queer As Food," a series that explores the role of food in LGBTQ+ communities.

I'm really proud of my kitchen. We are very tiny, but we're very loving. It's super inclusive. We're all queer. No one gets bullied. Everyone loves each other. We’re like a band of siblings. I love my crew.

As of this year, I've been cooking 20 years. And when I first started, it was not good. I was young and presented very dyke-looking. I was a little baby dyke. The comments that my coworkers would make to me were horrible—just crazy banter throughout a shift, just to break down a person. You would just have to brush it off and be tough, but I would go to work every day and be like, “Oh, my god, I have to see this person, and they are going to be in my face all day.”

I would say I am very resilient that way. I would just shut the f**k up and work.

Yes, I was bullied, but not all of it was bad. I did have those bad experiences, and I need to speak about them, but I don't want to be the sob story. There should be some hope. The hope is that I have uplifted myself. Trans and queer people are always portrayed as tragedies. We can uplift ourselves.

I decided: If I ever do something on my own, it cannot ever be like this. There cannot ever be any bullying, harassment, or bullshit. And I don't have that. I will not let that happen in my kitchen.

I never thought it would be possible, but it works. I realized we can actually create this. JungleBaoBao is an inclusive, peaceful place where people feel comfortable. It feels great. I am inclusive, but in a way, I only want to employ all my queer family. Because usually most queer kids never get the chance because other people won't employ them. For me, it's very important to give them that opportunity.

Because of everything that queer people have gone through, we want our food to be as tasty and beautiful as possible. We treat every ingredient with respect so that every element shines though. We want to make it better than anything—just so you don’t call it “queer food.” I mean, if you're serious about cooking and want to be awesome, it doesn't matter if you're queer.

It took me a lot of time to get where I am right now. On most days, I battle with dysphoria and getting out of bed. But 15 years ago, I never would have thought that I could present the way that I present myself now.

We have a very small trans man community here, but it's slowly growing and we have a support group and we’ve marched together before. It feels really good. We have a very inclusive kitchen with a diverse population.

During the shutdown, my trans support group has been using WhatsApp. We ask each other, "Hey, how are you doing? How are you feeling this week?” Everyone touches base. If someone's feeling sad, there's always positive words. A few weeks ago, the group gave out over a hundred groceries for the queer, non-binary and trans community. There was a designated spot—you would have to stay in the car obviously—and they would give you about $70 worth of groceries. It was amazing. Some of these kids don't even have jobs, and they need to eat.

I just got top surgery, and I never thought anything like this could happen to me. It gives me hope, and that's something for others, too. I never thought I was going to be a role model. I never saw myself in that position. But if someone sees me who feels like there's no way out, and learns there is a way out …

I don't always feel a hundred percent. If we don't wake up each week feeling amazing, you just have to keep going, you stretch, you do your little exercise, you meditate, and you go out into the world. I don't want to die, so I have to keep going.

You have to have faith in humanity—it’s so fragile. I live on an island, and the times that I've driven through our coast and seen the water color change into something beautiful has given me hope. But it's also very scary to see the island opening again. Will people be conscious going to the beach? I'm seeing that the water changed because it will regenerate but will we still leave trash in there? I want something positive to come out of this. I want people to respect all cooks, to see us, to know where the food came from, and all of that, but for that to happen, you have to trust humans. Can we?

I know I can do my part. I know I can try and teach my babies, and they will be able to pass it along. But people would have to do their part for a positive change to come. There's no other way. People have to be held accountable in order for there to be a positive change. Not just in the kitchen, but in anything.

As told to Maria Yagoda. Interview edited and condensed for clarity.