Roundtable: What Is Queer Food?
Several of the country’s leading queer hospitality pros discuss gender in the kitchen, why gay bars aren’t for everyone, and how to be more inclusive on both sides of the house.
This story is part of "Queer As Food," a series that explores the role of food in LGBTQ+ communities.
What is queer food? What is gay food? As Food & Wine’s Senior Food Editor and a member of the queer community, I was trying to answer this for myself and I don't actually know that it can be defined or that there is an answer to this question. But I'm really interested in gathering perspectives from people I respect, and asking how their opinions are informed. So I gathered a virtual roundtable via Webex. Here’s what they had to say.
John-Carter Ayanna, Executive Chef, The Macintosh, Charleston, SC
Preeti Mistry, Chef, Author, Activist, Farmer, Oakland, CA
Tiffani Faison, Executive Chef and Owner, Big Heart Hospitality, Boston, MA
Tiffanie Barriere, Mixologist and Creative, The Drinking Coach, Atlanta, GA
John Birdsall has written about gay food, documenting the contributions of male cookbook authors and observing that gay food is in the pursuit of pleasure. It's a joyful, delicious, over-the-top pursuit of satisfaction. And I think that's definitely one kind of gay food, but in thinking about it, I was actually watching Pose, if anybody's watched, it is this excellent...
I kept noticing that all the characters were gathering in that Chinese restaurant or mother was making dinner for everyone—it didn't matter what the food was—that nourishment and caring for a chosen family made me think that there was much more to this idea. And so, with that in mind, I wanted to pose the question: What's queer food?
John and I had that conversation about the article you're referencing on a panel a couple years ago. It was during Pride and it was myself, John, and Nik Sharma. And one of the things I thought was important was that as queer people, I feel like there's already this sense that the rules are out the window. I think about, in culinary school in 2002, I had the idea of, "Oh, I want to make a persillade with cilantro instead of parsley." And the French chef being like, “What?” I was like, "Well, why not?" I don't understand these boxes.
And so I think that from a very base place as chefs and cooks, I think that we just have the ability to see things differently. Angela Davis just made this comment about speaking about the trans community when it comes to police abolition, and we can see the world through a different type of gender binary, then we can see a lot of different possibilities.
So I feel that was something that kind of took it to another level. Yes, pleasure, and obviously the community that you're talking about. I mean, do you guys feel like that's true in your cuisine?
I feel like visibility is a big part of queer food. Just because we kind of exist in spaces where we don't always feel seen. And cooking is art. And it's our way to express ourselves. So just making sure that the emotion is tasted through the food and that our personalities are seen and like you were saying, using cilantro instead of parsley, kind of going away from what the status quo is or what the norm is and just doing what we could do to be different, to be seen.
I also think that connectivity and community is a big part of queer food. I don't necessarily think it's not a part of cis food. My favorite thing about food is that we all need it. And it's this great, universal connector—everybody needs to eat. Y'all could have been arguing but y'all both hungry, you go sit down at the table, and we're going to talk and we're going to have a conversation about it and I love food for that. And I could see how in queer communities just like how we were saying in Pose, it's a big connectivity piece. Everyone sat down around the table, they talked about their woes, no matter how upset Angel was at Poppy, they both still had to sit down and have dinner together. Man it is such a good show.
Another thing in me thinking about queer food is, you know, what does that really mean? For me immediately I was okay, so listening to Beyonce, Whitney Houston while you cook your food? That's got to be a part of it, right? “I'm Every Woman” is my pop-up song every day before service and I switch between the Whitney Houston and the Chaka Khan version so the kitchen doesn't really get too sick of it. But every day, we are listening to Whitney and they all know what's up. And I guess for me that's what queer food is, or that's what came to mind when I thought of it.
After reading the article, I thought a lot about the differences within queer food as a whole and then really thought a lot about, is it different for women than it is for men? The John Birdsall article was beautiful, but it was the sort of a flamboyant, gay, over-the-top thing. I don't know that women have been allowed to experience in ways that I think gay men have. Flying that flag really high in a way that I don't know that women have had the freedom to do for a lot of different reasons. Socio-economic reasons, obviously, body image stuff that's put on us constantly, and that's a fight back to have really unctuous rich over-the-top food. I thought a lot about the difference between—and is there a difference between—how queer food, and what it means for men and what it means for women?
Growing up in kitchens that were run by cis white guys it was this really structured, “do as I say not as I do,” screaming, yelling all the things, all the rules that applied to us and not them sort of thing. And what that meant for the community of the kitchen and a lot of it Preeti was saying about having already dismantled ideas about who I was in the world and expectations—whether it's kids, marriage, all those things—and having dealt with that in my life and then coming into this really structured environment in a kitchen and sort of re-indoctrinating myself into this box that I'd already broken out of it. There's some buy-in initially to be able to function in a kitchen like that. It's not about conversation and how to do the best thing and how to kind of crowdsource it in the moment, it's just get it done as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
When the conversation started about what I wanted out of my own kitchen, it was so far away from that. Still has to function quickly and efficiently. But how do we not only function in a way that everyone feels they have advocacy and they're seen and they can bring their whole self to the picture, but also how do we reach down and reach up? Like how do we reach up to our guests and communicate that, and then how do we create community with our farmers and our vendors and the people that are involved in that way?
So much of what it means to be queer for me in my restaurants—in terms of obviously involvement and community but for me personally—it's a lot about financial well-being. I'm not a man, I am not married to a man. I don't have that sort of typical male earning structure in my life. So it's just me, right? The business side of it is really important to me and it's important that I create a life for myself that is positive economically, and then I'm able to create that life for other people that work with me, a lot of whom are queer, are people of color, are people that live in a lot of the same sort of constraints that I have economically in terms of being able to rise. It's not about wealth for me, it's about having a healthier economic life. It's not about money, you know what I mean?
So managing the business of it has been such a huge part of that for me in terms of being able to, not only have the conversation with myself, but also have really hard and real economic conversations with the people around me about what it means to keep the business alive. It's multifaceted, but I've thought a lot in the last few years about what it means economically.
So it's interesting that I know when I was invited I was like, ‘What the f*ck is queer food?’ And then I was like well, obviously my first question is, so does it mean people who... I had to break it all down. John’s article was pretty amazing. It did break out some detail on the liquid side of things.
So my inner person is not Whitney Houston. “Never Too Much” is my song. But to me, just the feeling of “Never Too Much” is kind of like my flow of how to be in a cocktail world, because it's never too much. I mean, obviously liquor can be too much, but just my creativity, I just go really far. I think about some of the gay spaces that I'm in, and how there's always three things on the menu, at least in the South. You're going to have a beer menu which is just light, easy peasy. You're going to have shots all day long. And then we're gonna have martinis. We have every flavor of vodka that you can think about, and it's a martini. And it's not a gin martini. It's a vodka martini. Granted, Absolut sponsors the complete rainbow. But it's always this martini.
And so I'm thinking about, this morning I'm like, okay, so here we are in the club, queers in the club with martinis. I mean, come through completely. Is this a gay cocktail? Is this a class? This is a classification of a cocktail because the martini, in its history, in the ‘50s is quite classic. It says a lot when you sit down in a bar and you order a martini. My grandmother loved them and she’d say, "When you order a martini, watch how the bartender hands it to you. It's a slide. It's like here you go, martini. And then you're kind of looked at with this triangle glass with a stem. And people are looking at you like, damn, it's like that, and you're like, yeah, it's like that. It's like that.”
It's like that because I want my gin chilled with a skewer of some sort of fruit or garnish and I literally was thinking about this all night and this morning I was like, that's some gay shit. Maybe it's a martini. This is us, pinky out, fine glass.
I serve a lot of straights. And there's plenty of times that I've created a great cocktail, and I've used this specific glassware because it's what I want to use. I want this drink to be incredible. And then—and you guys have heard it— “Can you change my glass? Because I can't hold that.”
Change my glass? Who do you think you are? You think you're too masculine to hold a proper cocktail glass? So, if in fact we own clear cocktails, we also own the stemware too. And I mean it's something that I tease the straights—forgive me—I tease them for that. This macho-ness can't hold a proper cocktail glass. We laugh about it, trying to just cultivate more conversations in bar competitions, along with proper technique in a gay bar.
You know, it's interesting, because I often talk about the loss of gay bars in all the cities around the country. It's not that queer women don't go out. It's just that our tastes have changed as we've gotten older. I don't want to go to this dark, beer-soaked bar where the bartender looks at me with an eyeroll when I ask for a martini or a negroni. It's a shot and a beer kind of spot.
And the fact is, I think about my restaurant—and I don't know if that's true for y'all—I think about the queer families that came to my restaurant. I think about the fact that my friends go to bed at 10 p.m. and have a seven year old and a nine year old.
They are not going to the shot and the beer bar, not that those bars aren't great for the things that they're great for, and we love them. But I'm in my ‘40s. I don't necessarily want to go to a dive bar. I want to get that negroni, I want to get that bee's knees, and I want to get it made properly, and so I think it's not saying, ‘Why are there not more lesbian bars?’ or ‘Why are lesbian bars dying out?’ and instead, how do we reimagine queer community and spaces for who we actually are in the world today?
Yeah, I have a friend here, he's a gay male. He's quite the party guy. We've had this talk back and forth, lesbians can't have a bar, you can't do it. His theory is, we're too sensitive. We can't walk into a bar and see the X [chromosome]. We cannot walk into the club and party in the situation and feel comfortable, because we have a chromosome that needs a few things before we get comfortable in a party. So I'm like, okay that's your theory but kind of sort of true, at least in Atlanta. There is that point, like you said, parents—or those who are mother in spirit—we are organizing in work, and in ethics, and in our soul, and being out at a bar isn't our getaway. That's not our getaway. And the gents tend to get away like that. They have better places to go because that's their getaway. That's not our getaway. But if a restaurant is gay and, and it's just for us, then there's nothing but ladies in there.
Tiffanie, it's really interesting talking about queer bars. Has your friend ever been to Cubbyhole?
I mean, it's packed. I don't know if it's a conversation about why lesbians can't have a bar necessarily. I mean, men cruise, right? And that's a lot of why the bars are successful and women at some point stop doing it or age out of it. You go into Cubbyhole and it's no one over 30, and cruising hard. It's a really successful dive bar. What is the reinvention of the gay bar that allows everyone to have proper delicious cocktails and maybe some great food experience when it doesn't smell like stale beer and there's cruising? How does that manifest?
I think now, there's more freedom for young women to cruise in the way that gay men have for a really long time. But a lot of them have moved to apps. I think that conversation about our gay bars is so multifaceted and there's so many different factors about why it works for men. Even some of the just-male gay bars aren't working like they used to. It's heartbreaking that we're losing our gay bars generally.
I mean there's two ways to celebrate. We're either going to turn up, turn up, I'm going to get with my girls, with my boys. Or I want something that's quiet and we're going to walk and we're going to put the rocks out and meditate—and I just think that our community has so much to celebrate. And I think the clubs or the scene itself, I don't think it will ever change. It'll just be a matter of, what can we get in there, maybe some more options besides the stale piss and bad tequila. Like, really bad tequila.
I remember being 20-something, when we were going to the club every night, and we didn't have any money and we would throw parties, and I would cook all this food and people would be like, damn Preeti this is so good. And that's when I—seeing everyone come together—that was why I went to culinary school and became a chef. And so, just sort of having that full circle and feeling like, yes, it is possible to create something that is more nourishing than a shot and a beer in a dive bar for people to come together and celebrate in.
Also, I think about Queer Soup Night as a really cool thing that started creating some different. Some of them are no alcohol, or it's in a space that's not a bar, even though some people are drinking. And I think that things like that are a really interesting way that a newer generation, the younger generation are reimagining queer spaces with food.
Preeti, to your point, I think, you see a lot of people our age that have come through and grew up in the bars and moved on and want different spaces. And I'm watching a ton of queer chefs and restaurant owners around the country bring those elements into the restaurant and bring gay bars into the restaurant, whether it's drag brunch or whether it's pride celebrations, or whatever the celebration-
Drag brunch? I'm sorry, I'm writing that down, I love that. I try not to say the b-word if I don't have to.
Yeah. I mean, the problem is as chefs, none of us want... I would love to cook eggs at night. I don't want to get up after Saturday night and cook eggs, that's it. Other than that, brunch is great.
That sounds excellent, cooking eggs at night.
Yes, so, going to brunch is different than cooking brunch. But yeah, brunch has traditionally been the gayest service, right? It's the gayest. So what does that mean to bring that into our restaurants and understand that and translate that in a way that feels really good? We have regular brunches that have elements of fun queerness, and we see a lot of families gathering in that way. And then there's drag brunch that is just—it is just all out. It is a ruckus. The drag queens are going to burn my sh*t down at one point. I'm just waiting for that day. They've broken furniture, there's broken glass all the time, I just…
I love that, I love that.
I drink my way through the last hour of it every time.
Yes, yes, I mean is it brunch if you're not hungover?
Why are you even?
Why aren't you brunching?
So yeah, I think it's fun to see that especially during Pride month, seeing how queer restaurant owners and chefs and bartenders are bringing elements of the queer community and gay bars into restaurants and making it our own.
We are changing so much and it's beautiful, but it's also for them to have a safe place to work. One of my trans friends is studying for the somm exam, and she's wondering about the comfort of working at this multimillion dollar steakhouse and putting out a nice bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and how comfortable this cis weirdo is going to feel when her presence comes [to the table] and knows more that he does. The acceptance, obviously with bills passing, us having a presence, more things written, more flags waved, it is what it is. I think we're going to bust doors down even more.