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The Challenges of Being Transgender in Restaurant Kitchens

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According to trans chefs, gender presentation and “outness” factor in

Kitchens can sometimes feel like places that are stuck in a gendered past. Earlier this week, restaurateur John Besh’s New Orleans restaurant group was accused of fostering a climate that encouraged sexual harassment against female employees; allegations from 25 former and current employees outlined a systemic culture of harassment and abuse. In an interview, one woman told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which broke the story, that the group’s “boys club” was full of “kitchen bros... They think it’s still the ’90s, and you’re fighting an uphill battle if you’re not one of them.”

In a January 2017 op-ed, Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg called the “casual misogyny” in the restaurant industry “systemic, pervasive, and also very, very traditional.” As Agg and many others increasingly point out, the industry has long been dominated by male chefs who came up in demanding kitchens and went on to take the accrued stress out on the people now beneath them in the kitchen hierarchy. That often manifests, Agg writes, in “the kind of culture that seems crafted by the awkward, incomplete worldview of a teenage boy.” More concretely, a 2014 study by worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that 80 percent of women in the industry have experienced on-the-job harassment.

That culture, unsurprisingly, results in many kitchens feeling like hostile environments; that manifests in a noticeable lack of women and gender-variant people. Many studies and articles have been written about the kitchen gender gap — whether it’s the ratio of male to female chefs; the fact that male executive chefs earned, at last look, $18,000 on average more yearly than their female counterparts; or the fact that respondents to industry surveys are mostly male (specifically, in the 2011 American Culinary Federation Salary Summary, four out of five respondents were male, with only 7 percent of female respondents at the executive chef level).

But something that has been studied less are the roles of LGBTQ+ people, specifically transgender people, in kitchens. In a 2012 article in The Advocate, lesbian- and gay-identified chefs spoke about how the standard kitchen environment denigrates not only women, but anyone considered feminine (which includes gay men). But no studies have explored what it’s like to be an openly transgender person in a professional kitchen.

Having worked for the last several years in professional kitchens, from resorts in the Catskill Mountains to Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City to smaller kitchens in rural towns, I’ve had a variety of experiences as a trans person gradually coming out while working as a pastry cook. I was almost always the only trans person in the kitchen, there were almost always denigrating jokes about LGBTQ people, and being transgender has caused tension between me and other people with whom I’ve worked.

It turns out that the experience is not uncommon, though it’s not often spoken about. According to several transgender chefs, gender presentation, area of culinary expertise, work ethic, and levels of “outness” in the kitchen all affect their experience.

Brandon Byxbe is the owner of the Amazing Kale Burger in Chicago, a vegan chef, and a transgender man. With nine years of experience, he apprenticed into the trade rather than going to culinary school. He started taking hormone-replacement therapy at one job — as many restaurants do not provide health insurance to employees, Byxbe counts himself lucky to have transitioned in Chicago, where sliding-scale clinics were present — and was quite concerned about how transition would go. However, he came to his next job as an out trans person, and found the experience of working in kitchens presenting as both male and female eye-opening in several ways.

“Even coming in as female, you’re definitely looked down upon,” he says. “Distribution representatives don’t take women seriously. On the line, there’s no leeway — there are really gross jokes and a bunch of dudes hanging out. It gets even weirder when they think you’re one of the dudes.” Though Byxbe’s treatment from other cooks and chefs was accepting post-transition, he says that it caused waves for him to speak up to others in the kitchen about their misogynistic behavior in more than once instance. But Byxbe, having experienced the kitchen as both female and male presenting, did not feel silence was an option.

Chris Trapani, a trans chef who also appeared on the Food Network and who currently owns Urban Cowboy food Truck in Austin, Texas, had a different experience. “I didn't transition until I was 30,” he says. “It was stressful and scary because I worked for an Alabama-based company.” Specifically, Alabama does not offer anti-discrimination protections covering gender identity or sexual orientation; it’s one of 28 states in the nation with no employment-discrimination laws covering gender identity.

“I didn't know how they were going to react, or if they would understand,” Trapani continues. “Fortunately, my boss knew me very well — he's a great man and we are still friends to date. He supported me and helped me transition. [The company’s] clients were understanding and happy for me as well. I can tell you, once I began traveling to new accounts after I transitioned, all of my male trainees were much more receptive to me faster than before. Made my job a little easier for sure.”

Trapani’s food truck and concept as an “urban cowboy” may have been what made the transition easier. But he was quick to correct a question about how few female-identified chefs there are in the industry: Numbers had recently risen to around 20 percent, he says, noting that many female chefs owned the top catering companies in Austin, where he is based. (According to a 2012 study, 19 percent of head chef positions are held by women.)

However, Trapani was the only chef I spoke to to identify the experience of being trans or feminine-identified in a kitchen as an entirely positive one. For chefs like Soraya Sobreidad, a trans woman who strives to create healthy, low-sugar, low-fat, high-fiber, gluten-free takes on Puerto Rican classics, and who hosts a show called Soraya Sobreidad’s Fierce Cooking Show, the experience has been varied. Her first major television appearance was on Chopped, where she says that a revelation that she was trans caused a bit of a stir.

“The vibe of some of the other contestants changed,” she says. “Not the females, but from the males. Chefs, staff, tech people — they didn’t really know what to do.”

Sobreidad began her show self-identifying as a gay male doing drag. However, as time went on, she became more comfortable, and began to open up to other possibilities for her identity. “As I began to get a better understanding of who I was, my cooking took off,” she says. “There was a lot more creativity.”

Both Byxbe and Sobreidad feel their style of cuisine is directly related to their identity and comfort levels. Byxbe’s role as a vegan chef, he believes, makes it easier for him to gain acceptance. “Since [vegan people] are already open to new ways of living, new ways of living like being trans aren’t as shocking.”

Sobreidad has been supplementing her knowledge with classes, but she did not go to culinary school, and learned through the women of her family. Sobreidad says that growing up learning to cook from female family members in a Latin American culture impacted her identity and her self-acceptance. “I saw passionate cooks. All of them were female,” she says. “They were great cooks and they nurtured through food. A strong, feminine, nurturing vibe is what I came up with in the kitchen.”

Many argue that professional kitchens remain the sort of work-hard-get-far environments that rarely exist in many other work environments in this day and age; one of the few places where people can still apprentice and rise in the ranks, no matter who they are, with a good enough work ethic. In a lengthy discussion of the topic of trans chefs on a forum on Cheftalk.com, almost all of the respondents, though most of them were not trans, assured the trans chef in question that she could do well in any kitchen with a strong dedication to the tasks at hand. (“Skill trumps everything else,” one chef declared.)

But a fourth transgender cook I spoke to, Jess Lebron, worked in the industry for 10 years. “I gave it up in fall 2015, because of how hostile the restaurant environment can be for trans folks,” Lebron says. “I wasn't even out yet, but I would always hear transphobic BS in the kitchens I worked for, be it co-workers ‘jokingly’ saying how they'd kill trans folks if they had the chance, or using trans folks as the brunt of their jokes. It was disgusting. I still cook, but for private events and clients now.”

In that same Cheftalk discussion, another gay-identified chef suggested, “Don’t go around telling everyone you are trans.” The comments show the level to which many chefs believe deeply in the don’t-ask-don’t-tell model of operation when it comes to gender identity and the ability to do one’s job in a “masculine” environment.

The fact that no other trans chefs responded to the original post pointed to another thing I found through my interviews. Most of the trans chefs I spoke to did not know many other, if any other, transgender chefs. From personal experience, I would say that having another transgender person in any given work environment makes it clearer when situations are bordering on unfair or biased against trans people in general. It leaves me wondering if many trans chefs tolerate things in many kitchens that they would never tolerate if they had more people like themselves nearby for support.

Trapani feels that kitchens are a wonderful place to be trans — though his masculine presentation may have something to do with this, and it is clear from speaking to others that feminine-identified people have very different experiences. “I think the kitchen is a great place for trans people to be to express their creativity,” Trapani says. “Kitchens are always so diverse and accepting, in my opinion. Kitchen folk always feel oppressed or behind the scenes while the front of house gets all the thanks and attention, which makes them unite.”

The numbers on how many transgender chefs there are working in professional kitchens have not yet been explored in any of the major kitchen-employment surveys. While it might make sense for many transgender chefs to, as one of the respondents on the trans chef thread on Cheftalk.com suggested, keep their identity a secret, chefs like Byxbe think advocacy and openness in the kitchen are as important as anywhere else.

“I out myself as much as possible. I hate when people think they don’t know any trans people,” Byxbe says. In an environment known for its stereotypical masculinity and gender disparity, this visibility may be even more important in a restaurant kitchen.

Alex DiFrancesco is a writer and storyteller. They have recently moved from NYC to Ohio, where they are still trying to wrap their head around "Sweetest Day." Kyle Griggs is an animator and illustrator based in Sydney, Australia.
Editor: Erin DeJesus