Food bonds people together — I know that firsthand being a new resident of New Orleans, the gumbo capital of the world. Food has been a way to make friends and make myself at home here. I’m learning the history of Louisiana through herbs, spices, local vegetation, and the culinary visions of talented queer and lesbian chefs. Life in NOLA has helped me develop an appreciation for the folks that work on the kitchen line — and have a passion for recipes and respect for the food that nourishes us.
I have an even deeper admiration for the out, queer chefs that serve my community while dealing with the trials of the culinary industry, a mainstream dilemma that we often never witness once their food reaches our table. I had the pleasure of speaking with five queer chefs who not only shared the stories of their journey to food, but the challenges they all face as chefs cooking outside the binary of the restaurant world.
Manager of Food Service Operations at Spirit Rock and Head Chef/Owner of Knife Play Kitchen
As a leather queer butch in Northern California, Levi has found solace, comfort, and solidarity with the LGBTQ community through vegetarian cooking. “My background is in non-profit management, particularly with organizations protecting the rights of sexual minority communities. On hard days, that kind of work sometimes felt like an unending spiral, three steps forward, five steps back, one step forward. For me, cooking was a discovery of balance. It is an endless source of inquiry, creativity, and refinement — but at the end of the meal there is closure, I get to let go completely, and the next meal will define itself from scratch.”
Making the transition out of a traditional career path into being a full-time chef not only brought him a sense of peace but affirmation of his identity. “Cooking taught me how to find my creative voice, and my confidence as a leader. As a queer butch, I am not ‘supposed to’ step into my own power power, and in doing so, I reclaim my strength and inherent dignity. I have learned to embrace all of the aspects of my gender and my sexuality, and I can now also own who I am as a chef — quiet, decisive, loving, supportive, and exacting. I want my kitchen to be a place of self-discovery, self-acceptance, empowerment, and respect, values that define the best of what I have found in LGBTQ culture that I want to share with the mainstream culinary world.”
Levi cooks at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, serving participants some of the finest produce the West Coast has to offer. His experience of serving those who are working to bring health and wellness to the community has been humbling. “At the retreat center, practitioners are coming to do the tremendously difficult work of healing, cultivating compassion and forgiveness and joy, finding their center and their stillness. To be able to silently place beautiful, fresh, and fulfilling meals on their table each day is my form of service to their practice and to their humanity.”
Levi is also Head Chef and Owner of Knife Play Kitchen, a personal chef and catering company offering cooking lessons, menu planning services, recipe testing, and more.
Kelli Kae Elliott and Shelli Shae Elliott
Executive Chef; Executive Sous Chef at Larsen’s Steakhouse
Ohio-born twin chefs Kelli and Shelli have been surrounded by cooking since they were young and turned their family tradition into a career. “I saw what joy came to the family from my Grandmother’s cooking and how it brought everyone together,” Shelli says, “I wanted to follow in that tradition. As I got older, working in the kitchen became the place for misfits and that’s where I fit in.” While Shelli was in culinary school, she introduced her sister Kelli to the culinary arts and, after retiring from law enforcement, Kelli joined her in the kitchen.
Now they work side-by-side in the same restaurant, Kelli as Executive Chef and Shelli working as her Sous Chef. When asked what challenges they face as out, Black lesbians, they agreed that the challenge lies more with their skin color than it does with their sexuality in a white, male-dominated field. “The main challenge I face in the mainstream is being dismissed by others,” Kelli says. “I encounter this not just as part of the LGBTQ community but as a Black woman as well. I often have to fight for my ideas and voice to be heard. I am often overlooked for features and guest spots.” Despite the prejudices they face, Kelli and Shelli bring the spirit of their grandmother into the kitchen, reimagining her comfort food recipes into upscale, gourmet creations at their restaurant and to the community at fundraisers, weddings, and women’s retreats. “I would say that my visibility serves the community,” Kelli says. “I am out and proud. When others see that, it is my hope they too can be out and proud.”
Executive Chef at the Memphis Project
Leigh identities as a pansexual, genderqueer person of color and “feeder of the masses” whose enthusiasm for cooking began from their early moments as a child. “I remember as a kid when I got to cook for the first time on ‘the big stove.’ Not an Easy Bake Oven. I felt like as I stepped up to the stovetop I was at home. This is where I belonged. I belong where the heat and sweat live. I belong where creativity and conceptualizing is the love language. So I carry that mindset even if I’m just scrambling eggs.”
Leigh has translated cooking as their love language into a budding non-profit called the Memphis Project, an organization that serves queer youth and young adults. They supply lunch bags filled with toiletries and food for sex workers and the homeless. Leigh hopes to expand the organization to bring back-to-school basics to public school students.
One of the biggest challenges Leigh faces as a genderqueer chef is working with a team without stereotypes or feeling placed in an identity box by other male chefs. “Mostly because they are uncomfortable with my androgyny. They want me to be one of the guys, one of the brothers, but then because I also embrace my femininity it throws them. This has caused me to lose jobs, but I refuse to conform and censor who and what I am. On the other hand, it can be very empowering to work in a place that is cohesive and on-board with sensitivity in reference to my identity and pronouns. When that happens I am no longer seen as a ‘queer chef,’ I transcend into becoming a part of the team as a whole. I think every chef has the want to be a part of the team.”
While embracing cooking as a team effort, Leigh also acknowledges cooking as a sacred act. “Every dish that I conceptualize and execute, I like to envision not only putting myself into it, but that I in someway put magic in every bite. The ingredients sing on their own. I just give them a mic and direct them into harmony. I not only feed their bellies but the deep parts that may be starving. I feed the spirit, so that the body will be satisfied.”
Chef and Creator of Babetown and Chef at Rockaway Clam Bar
As a self-identified “old lady lesbian,” Alex has been bringing queer and trans women as well as non-binary folks together through Babetown, a moving pop-up supper club based in Brooklyn, NY. It began organically in Alex’s home where she strived to bring her passion for food to local queers. “People would leave and tell me how amazing it was to meet these other queer people they never would have met otherwise,” Alex says. “I think when people are in a private home, their stomachs full of food, the best in that person is being brought out and their guard is going to go down. That party eventually became Babetown — a dinner party that’s about bringing queer people together in person.”
It’s been a comfort to Alex to see how the intimacy of food can bring the best out of people considering the former experiences of harassment, invisibility, and a near assault she faced working in a male-dominated kitchen. “It’s more of a challenge being a woman and non-white in kitchens than being gay, but being gay definitely doesn’t help. I think cooking is a job that requires a great deal of focus and it’s an extra challenge trying to focus when you’re surrounded by men screaming homophobic and transphobic slurs at each other,” Alex says. “Overall, as a femme woman in kitchens, I’m basically an object to most of these guys from the minute they meet me. At one Michelin-starred restaurant where I worked, a fellow cook offered to give me a ride home. He drove me out to somewhere far out of the city, pulled over, and tried to assault me. I had to fight him off of me and run out of the car, then call a friend to come pick me up. When I told the chef about it the next day, he asked why I got into a car with him and led him on. The fact that I’m gay, or any other details about who I am, didn’t matter to them. I was just an object.”
Despite the memory of this ordeal, Alex hasn’t allowed the threats of the industry take away her love for bringing food to the LGBTQ community as both a comfort and bonding agent. “There are so many things working to divide us when we need each other more than ever, and that’s what I try to do for the queer community through Babetown.”
Through these interviews, I learned that behind every dish I eat comes the history of the chef. Their trials and achievements pour out in their flavors, their presentation, and their clientele’s happiness. Queer and lesbian chefs continue to break the boundaries of the culinary world to foster harmony and community with their passion for food.