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Beaming man leans over a kitchen counter with a bowl on atop of his head; he’s smiling at a toddler who’s looking up at him.
Justin Burke and his son, Jasper

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This Chef Used to Leave His Queerness at the Kitchen Door. Now, He’s Embracing It.

One pandemic and a baby later, chef Justin Burke is his fullest self, with some help from his friends

In 2014, the line to get one of Justin Burke’s mocha-coconut or Key lime pop tarts formed outside his Boston-area pop-ups an hour early, and the pastries disappeared in less time than that. But Burke hadn’t planned on becoming a professional baker: He remembers waking up one morning to a Boston Herald article that called him a pastry chef, and “just like that,” he says, “I was one.” Instead, the pop-ups were envisioned more as an ongoing bake sale to fund his main desire: to become a father.

When Burke — now a full-time baker, recipe developer, and food writer — and his husband David started talking about having a family, they were struck by the cost. Having a child is expensive for anyone, but for queer couples, it can be even more so. From start to finish, Burke says, the surrogacy process “cost us almost $150,000.” The bake sales were envisioned “essentially instead of asking for a GoFundMe,” he says, and in 2018, Burke’s dream came true with the birth of his and David’s son, Jasper. But Jasper’s arrival coincided with the end of Burke’s marriage, and his experiences in his new, unexpected career in restaurant kitchens began to reshape how he thought of his family and community.

For queer people, notions of family often extend beyond a nuclear one. Sometimes this is born of necessity, when blood relatives aren’t accepting and queer people must create new bonds. In its many forms, the construction of queer community challenges conventions about what a family can or should look like. There’s no age-old blueprint for queer family, so creating one is an act of discovery and imagination. In a 2018 story Burke wrote for Eater, he described the need for support and connection that he felt while working in restaurant kitchens, and the challenges he faced in these overwhelmingly straight and male-dominated spaces. Homophobia and toxic masculinity colored his time in kitchens, making it unbearable. Burke was reminded every day that he wasn’t taken seriously as a cook, his skill undermined by constant harassment and challenges to the way he presented himself. As he navigated work environments where he was an outsider, there was no support system in place. “I didn’t have a queer community. I didn’t have anyone that I could talk to about anything queer, or anything, really,” he says. Within friend groups, “We were the gay friends.”

Burke left the industry in 2018, when Jasper was born. But as the story made waves, other queer cooks who felt isolated in their experiences related to his words, and people reached out to tell Burke how much his story meant to them. “I understand chosen family now,” says Burke, looking back on that time in his life, before he had a community to lean on. “You find these people who relate to you — we give ourselves that space to vent, and talk about our craziest thoughts.” These relationships play a profound role in so many queer people’s lives: They make life fuller, transforming experiences from ones that can be isolating into sources of kinship and joy. Navigating predominantly straight spaces — ones where queerness is not accepted or given space to exist and unfurl — without the support of a community can be a challenge. Burke’s time in restaurants was shaped by doing so without support.

Toddler on the floor playing with a game; man wearing baseball hat sits next to him and plays along.

But not too long after he wrote his essay, a community did form around Burke and his baby. By then, he had left restaurant kitchens, and his marriage to David was over. “My life changed so much: I left a career that I loved because I wanted to be a stay-at-home dad. I’m now a single parent, like, what the fuck?” Eventually, he found a new and supportive relationship, and they became close with an older gay couple, Larry and Randy. “They knew, as parents, what I was going through, but they also knew as queer parents what I was going through. I had never realized how important it was to have a chosen family, or what it meant. It clicked to me.” It was the first time in his life that Burke, who was raised going to a Baptist church in a conservative town, was surrounded by other queer people. Burke and his boyfriend would bring Jasper to Larry and Randy’s house, where they taught him to swim. “This chosen family loves me and my son unconditionally, and witnessing others show such care and love to Jasper shows me how cared for he is, and how rich his life is.”

It wasn’t just other queer people who became part of this web. “We live in a cul-de-sac where there’s 14 homes, and everyone has kids. They became an extension of our chosen family. We talk and we share, and our kids just get absorbed in this community. This is how life should be,” he says. These neighbors became Burke’s friends and looked out for Jasper. This family — the friendships, neighbors, Burke’s boyfriend, his ex-husband, and his ex-husband’s boyfriend — is big and spread out, not at all a family in the most literal sense. Together, they’re raising a child. “I knew that we could still be a family,” Burke says, referring to his previous relationship and the challenge of figuring how to raise his son together. “It doesn’t have to be the way that we’ve been ingrained to think of family. It can be constructed however we want it, as long as respect and love and dedication are the foundation.”

There was enough stability for Burke to ease back into the food world in 2019, overseeing a bakery that was on the verge of closing and needed direction. Then, as everything seemed to be falling into place, the pandemic hit. Burke and David created a bubble between their two family units, agreeing to take as few risks as possible. Despite their carefulness, one day Jasper woke up with a fever. By the end of the week, everyone, including Burke, had tested positive for COVID-19. Burke lost his sense of taste and smell, and a crushing list of long-haul symptoms settled in; a cookbook deal fell through while Burke was ill, and contracts for projects came apart. “It was really, really hard,” he says. A rotating cast of neighbors checked in on him, looking after Jasper when Burke’s energy was low.

The connections Burke formed during the pandemic — and everything that he feared he wouldn’t regain when he fell sick — changed how he thought about cooking. “I look at food in such a different way. And I’m more intentional with what I’m cooking.” When Burke finally regained his senses, he turned to the food of his childhood, as well as the dishes he’s discovered through his new family. “How do I incorporate them and their stories into my work?” For inspiration, Burke turns to the queer potlucks that started popping up in the ’50s, organized primarily by lesbian communities to connect and organize when other spaces did not welcome them. “People were making food from their blood families that they don’t talk to anymore, but that food is so important to them that it needs to be shared and passed down. When people ask what queer food is, I’m like, ‘It’s not a tangible thing. It’s a makeup of a lot of things. Just like the queer community, there’s this spectrum.’”

Instead of queerness being left at the kitchen door, it’s part of Burke’s cooking process now. This shift happened, in large part, after Burke stepped away from professional kitchens. “Since becoming a parent, and leaving the restaurant world, I’ve really learned more about myself as someone who’s queer,” he says. “I have become so much more appreciative of my queer identity and embracing it. I talk about it so much more and I really lean into it. I used to be like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be the gay chef.’ But I think that was the pressure of these heteronormative, cisgender, male-run places brainwashing me to suppress my identity.” He wants these cycles of isolation to end, and that starts at home, with his own child. “We can equip him with the ability to be strong and stand up for what’s right and not get shook by any hate, because he’s going to have that with queer parents,” Burke says. “It’s our responsibility to give him the tools to be able to stand up for himself and for his family.”

Burke’s clarity and confidence are almost unrecognizable in comparison with the way he once moved through restaurant kitchens. “I was mean and cold. I just shut off all emotions and became this person who people feared because they couldn’t read me,” he wrote in his Eater essay. “Rather than changing workplace culture, I contributed to its dysfunction.” Burke hasn’t given up on the idea that restaurants are, at their core, a place for “respite and restoration.” He’s used his distance from restaurants to question how the industry failed him and others in his position. “How do we create a space that welcomes anyone and everyone in a safe environment?” he asks. The question extends beyond him and his immediate community, to the many kitchens where queer people, people of color, and women still don’t feel safe and aren’t treated with respect. “How do we show that we can come from so many different walks of life, but that we can be there for one another?”

Crush Rush is a photojournalist based in South Carolina.

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