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Homophobia Almost Made Me Quit Being a Chef

For men who don’t fit a narrow definition of masculinity, gay or not, restaurant kitchens can be a place of daily harassment

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I’m 29 years old, a guest chef at a neighborhood restaurant in Boston. It’s early in the morning and I am prepping with a few other cooks for a pop-up in just a few hours. I am trying, as I always did during my pop-up stint, to not get in anyone’s way or disrupt the daily routine. I need to grab a few hotel pans; I scan the kitchen and spot them under a prep table. Two of the three restaurant cooks working that morning are using that table. I walk over and stand between the two and say, “Behind. Good morning, I just need to grab a few pans.”

I bend down, taking a knee because I’m wicked tall, and the man on my right instinctively flinches, but in an exaggerated way, pantomiming that he is afraid I want to touch him. Without skipping a beat, the man on my left puts his hand on my head and says, “Well, good morning indeed. While you’re down there.” The guys laugh and I let out an awkward and uncomfortable laugh, something I often do in hyper-masculine environments. The rest of the day continues in the kitchen as it always does, but I have a pit in my stomach that won’t go away. I move and speak around them with caution the remainder of the time I’m there.

Are they okay with me? Are they okay with any gay person?

Homophobia is rampant in America’s restaurant kitchens, and my professional and personal lives have both been shaped by it. There’s stereotyping and bias (unconscious or otherwise). There’s bullying. There’s physical and sexual assault. The day in and day out of working within these environments transforms your character and challenges your mental stability. The blatant avoidance and dislike I’ve experienced outside of work almost pales in comparison to the daily torture I was subjected to in my first years of work as a cook and a chef.

I got my start in professional cooking in Boston about 10 years ago, a politically progressive city, generally, and the capital of the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. I was naive to think that meant I would never experience homophobic and sexual abuse in the industry. Instead, I saw an industry frozen in time, lacking professional human resources or even basically functioning working conditions. I saw restaurants run on a “Why reinvent the wheel?” ethos. It’s like like dirty politics: Those in power tend to do whatever it takes to stay there (like, say, threatening to fire someone who complains about harassment), and scandals are swept under the rug.

I would hear the whispers. Fag. Fairy. Princess. Every day, no matter what, someone would make fun of the way I stood and say something like, “Stand like you have a dick between your legs, boy.” I was an easy target. The hyper-masculinity and aggressive sex talk made me nervous, and if I were asked a question or were around this type of dialogue, I would just stumble over my words and cower. (This abuse doesn’t just happen to openly gay people in the kitchen. If you are suspected to be gay, you’re a target. If you’re a straight man but do not play into the hyper-masculinity and sex talk, then there is something wrong with you — you must be gay — and you become a target. I watched too many straight men who were so nice and kind get destroyed.)

It is depressing to know that you, as a person, are not accepted. It is exhausting having to be a good chef and watch your back. It is mental multitasking at its worst.

Most days I worked with a certain level of paranoia. The sheer amount of worry — what will someone say to me today? What will someone do to me today? — would paralyze me. Most likely hungover from drowning my woes the night before, I would gather my arsenal of coffee, Red Bull, Gatorade, and Ativan to get me through the shakes, dehydration, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. I would run all sorts of scenarios in my head. This day would be the day I say something. This day is the day I shut it down. This day is the day I hit back. This day is the day I stop I crying in dry storage. This day is the day… My thoughts would just go on. But not once were they about cooking.

The harassment and abuse crowded out anything else; I was not capable of thinking creatively or organizing myself, and my prep, to be the best pastry chef I could be. I would arrive, change into my chef’s whites, set up my station, and get to work on my prep list. I would keep my head down, avoiding eye contact. I wouldn’t stop to eat. I wouldn’t stop to drink water. I would just work and try so very hard to keep out of the way and to make it a day without harassment. I was running on fumes.

The consequences of abuse are unfathomable. I developed a severe anxiety disorder. I stopped talking, cut ties and relationships in and out of the kitchen. I was lonely. I was depressed. I started drinking. My clear mind became scrambled, and the Justin I knew was a shell of a human being. To this day, I still cannot talk about the worst things that have happened to me. I continue to work through the aftermath of my years in abusive kitchens. I suspect I’ll be working through it forever.

Homophobia isn’t always as blatant as slurs and attacks. Assuming I can decorate, dress well, wrap a pretty present, and plan the hell out of an event are among the gentler stereotypes I have encountered at work. But being treated as a stereotype is dehumanizing.

I come across this all the time as a pastry chef. I became a pastry chef because I love the order and science of it. Pastry complements my obsessive and overly analytical mind. I did not become a pastry chef because I am gay. Yet because of the stereotype that gay men are for some reason naturally drawn to pastry, I have had to fight that much harder for the chance to grow outside of the pastry department.

I wanted to learn the operations of running a kitchen, I wanted to run expo, I wanted to develop my palate, and I wanted to learn pasta. But the assumptions my past managers have had about me — that I am too emotional, sensitive, or weak to handle the pressure outside of pastry — kept me from learning, from promotions, and, most importantly, from respect within the kitchen.

When I reached my breaking point, I felt I had three options: Quit and change careers, become a whistleblower, or change my entire persona. I opted for changing. I was jaded and stubborn and determined to prove a point. I was vindictive and angry. I developed a thick skin, I carried a chip on my shoulder, and I brought a stern fuck-off grit that intimidated the shit out of people. I was mean and cold. I just shut off all emotions and became this person who people feared because they couldn’t read me. I was unapproachable and arrogant, known for “shutting it down.” This complete 180 from my naturally inclusive and collaborative personality did not get me far. Rather than changing workplace culture, I contributed to its dysfunction. I was still miserable and lonely, and my anxiety and paranoia persisted. Worst of all, I continued to experience homophobia and abuse.

I needed real change. My husband and I moved from Boston down to North Carolina, and after quickly getting and leaving a kitchen job that was more of the same, I applied to work as an assistant manager and get out of the kitchen entirely.

I started working at the Davidson, North Carolina, restaurant Kindred in 2015. Owners Joe and Katy sold me in the interview process on their goal of remaking the culture of the industry, and when I started working there I felt the difference immediately.

The pace, the vibe, the peace, and the professionalism were revitalizing. For the first time, I saw what happened when culture and staff morale were considered as important as the quality of the food and service provided to guests. As a manager, I’m asked to do regular check-ins with everyone and make sure physical and mental health are good. It’s still a restaurant. But when we see misogyny, racism, or homophobia seeping in, we shut it down.

While it’s more common to see this kind of culture in the front of house, in my experience, it’s unheard of in the kitchen. As days became weeks became months of not experiencing harassment or homophobia, I finally felt ready to get back to cooking, and in my second year there I started working in pastry again. With a clear head and a healthy work environment, I’m doing what I think is my best work to date. I’ve pushed myself hard in new directions — I now run the pastry departments for two restaurants.

But I am more cognizant than ever that there are many LGBTQ cooks experiencing the very abuse I have managed to get away from. We have a long way to go before every kitchen in America is safe and inclusive. Sharing our stories — from all marginalized communities — is part of it. Leaders in the industry who are making changes need to be vocal too: Show your peers how to ensure their restaurants are safer and healthier, and how to make their staff the priority. Together, we must recenter: I see my industry welcoming strangers to our tables every night during service. I believe we can also welcome our coworkers.

Justin Burke-Samson is a pastry chef in North Carolina. Sarah Robbins is a Baltimore-based illustrator.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan