In the Queer Kitchen: A Conversation with John Birdsall, Preeti Mistry, and Nik Sharma

(from left) Writer John Birdsall, photographer Nik Sharma, and restauranteur/chef Preeti Mistry in conversation with Jarry editor Lukas Volger. (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

What is a queer kitchen? Is there a recognizable queer style or sensibility that can be expressed through food? Can non-gay chefs queer their food? As the rainbow-stickered crowds in booty shorts and body glitter surged through Dolores Park and Civic Center on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a rather more sedate audience of thirty gathered upstairs at Williams Sonoma's flagship store in Union Square to listen to a discussion of these questions and more. The conversation was the first San Francisco event organized by the New York-based gay men's food magazine Jarry, a twice-yearly print publication that launched (thanks in part to a Kickstarter campaign) in the fall of 2015.

Jarry issue 2 and tote bags.
Jarry issue 2 and tote bags. (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

According to moderator (and Jarry co-founder/editor) Lukas Volger, the idea of the "queer kitchen"--as opposed to "gay food"--seemed both more inclusive and more contemporary, at a time when few, if any, restaurants would position themselves as catering to an exclusively gay clientele.

Writer and former chef John Birdsall is a firm believer that there is a queer aesthetic in food, with its roots in the work of Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and ex-pat Richard Olney, a trifecta of closeted gay men whose sensibilities and far-reaching influence changed the way Americans cooked. It's a legacy that Birdsall thinks more people--especially straight chefs--should acknowledge. "I love Lucky Peach [magazine]," said Birdsall. "But the first couple of issues were really reflective of that male, straight, bro-y chef culture." It was this narrowly macho focus that led Birdsall to set the record less than straight with America, Your Food is So Gay, which won a James Beard Journalism Award in 2014. Birdsall, now 56, remembers he and a boyfriend reading aloud from Olney's writings, feeling like they were getting a glimpse of a secret gay world, one that was, by necessity, elusive, both cooly cerebral yet infused with the sensuality of Olney's adopted home in the south of France, its brilliant light, its hillsides of thyme and lavender.

But what was coded and discrete before was, by the 1990s, exploding into we're here, we're queer, get used to it, especially in San Francisco. When Preeti Mistry, co-owner and head chef of Oakland's Juhu Beach Club, first came to San Francisco in 1996, she found out lesbians like Elizabeth Falkner, Traci Des Jardins, and Elka Gilmore putting their stamp on the evolving California cuisine of the time. Mistry, who originally wanted to be a filmmaker, was inspired by these chefs' creativity and fearlessness, so much so that she left a job in the "gay bubble" of Frameline to start training in fine dining at Claridge's in London.

Writer John Birdsall, photographer Nik Sharma, restauranteur/chef Preeti Mistry, in conversation with Jarry editor Lukas Volger.
Writer John Birdsall, photographer Nik Sharma, restauranteur/chef Preeti Mistry, in conversation with Jarry editor Lukas Volger. (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

"These women were my heroes," she said. It wasn't just that these women were out, at a time when restaurant kitchens could still be tough places for women, gay or straight. It was that they were changing the game, on and off the plate. "At Citizen Cake, Elizabeth changed the presentation of pastry," said Mistry. Her cakes were architectural, pierced with sugar shards or kitschily frosted shag-carpet deep. They were disruptive, deconstructed, even a little bit dangerous. (It's no surprise that her first cookbook, written in the form of a comic book, was titled "Demolition Desserts.") Mistry remembers a dinner with Jim Dodge, then a well-known pastry chef trained in a more classical style. "When Elizabeth's dessert came out, he said 'What is this crap?'" It was a clash of sensibilities, his gay, hers queer.

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For photographer Nik Sharma of the blog A Brown Table, and the youngest of the group, coming out wasn't an issue, but finding a gay social circle when he first started medical school wasn't easy. A chat with a gay professor led to an invitation to the med school's "secret gay potluck"--secret not out of fear, but simply because "they didn't want any straights to come," said Sharma. Formerly a medical researcher, now a professional photographer specializing in food, he still treasures the friendships he made over those dinners.

Photographer Nik Sharma and writer John Birdsall, with portrait of Sharma by Patrick Byrnes from Jarry issue 2.
Photographer Nik Sharma and writer John Birdsall, with portrait of Sharma by Patrick Byrnes from Jarry issue 2. (Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen)

Sharma, like Mistry, is of Indian heritage. Calling out his brownness in the title of his blog--and often photographing his own hands as he made pastry or squeezed oranges--was a deliberate choice, compelled by a wish to make visual space for his immigrant perspective and culture within a blogging world that was overwhelming white and female. His work has paid off: next week, he'll have a new column, A Brown Kitchen, in the San Francisco Chronicle, and his blog has won numerous awards for photography. Sharma was also the subject of a short video on KQED back in January.

Birdsall, who won a second James Beard Award for Straight Up Passing, an article about gay chefs in Jarry's first issue, sees queer cooking as an act of anti-normative transgression and resistance. It's not a concept that all the chefs he spoke to agreed with--in fact, he was stonewalled by several high-profile out chefs, who bristled at being categorized as "gay chefs," much in the way that many artists resist being defined as "women writers" or "female musicians," or felt that their sexuality had nothing to do with how they cooked. Or was it just that these chefs--white and cisgender, as Mistry points out--still had more to lose by promoting a higher profile gay identity, even in these more equal times?

Birdsall feels that such transgressive attitudes in the kitchen can be adopted even by non-gay chefs. He points to the boundary-breaking of Mission Chinese Food, as well as the "sensitive, fluid, thoughtful" cooking of Daniel Patterson. Reaching back to the work of Jeremiah Tower (who was mentored by both Beard and Olney), Birdsall sees Tower's shaping of California cuisine in the 1980s as "a repudiation of the more formal cuisine that came before, as an expression of intense pleasurability, [creating] these very high-level, pleasurable experiences in both cooking and eating."

"I'm not interested in forcing something that's not natural, in over-manipulation" of ingredients or presentation, said Mistry. "We're not distilling things; it's fire and food and spices." And while she does have a underlying aesthetic for plating ("It's not a trough!"), she doesn't see the need to torture her food with stylists' tweezers, either. More important to Mistry is creating a workplace, and a dining room, that's diverse and welcoming in ways that restaurants haven't always been, both for diners and employees. Her goal is a place that's so diverse that no one group is on top with the power to belittle or harass others. The vulgar humor that's been long seen as a staple in restaurant kitchens has no place in hers. "We make jokes and laugh all day long," said Mistry, but her employees learn fast that dumb dick jokes won't fly. "We just shame and humiliate them if they try. Like, 'that's the best you come up with? Really?'" Mistry said. "They have to work harder than that."

As a butch woman of color, Mistry has experienced first-hand the stark contrast between how she and her wife, Juhu Beach Club co-owner Ann Nadeau, are treated in restaurants when they are and aren't recognized. If she's recognized from her stint on Top Chef and Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown food and travel show, they get the industry hotshot treatment; if not, they've been ignored by bartenders and slighted by hostesses. "When Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, comes in, we treat her like a rock star," Mistry said. Part of running her own restaurant is the freedom to speak out for causes and issues she and Nadeau feel strongly about, and to create a workplace that reflects the diversity of Oakland, where she and Nadeau work and live.

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"The tides are changing, both in race and gender," Mistry said. "People are used to seeing brown people in the kitchen. We'd like to have an equal diversity in the front of the house."

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