What it’s like for these LGBT ACF chefs in the culinary industry

By Suzanne Hall

A half a dozen or so chefs don’t make a scientific survey. But when they represent different segments of the culinary industry and work in various parts of the country, it is possible to make a tentative assumption. And that is while members of the LGBT community may be fighting for acceptance in some areas, the culinary industry doesn’t seem to be one of them.

The chefs and restaurateurs we’ve talked to have found the industry open and welcoming. Since our sample was small, your experience might be different. If so, please let us hear from you (Email communications@acfchefs.org).

Jose Martinez, for example, is executive chef at Woodward Academy North in Atlanta. He’s also personal chef for a family in Buckhead, an upscale Atlanta neighborhood. When he was interviewing for the job at Woodward, his sexual orientation did not come up. Nor should it have. Asking such questions is against the law. In the six years that he has been at Woodward, Martinez has taught leadership classes and interacted regularly with the faculty, staff and even the prestigious private school’s president.

“I just try to be myself,” he says. “Most people can’t tell that I’m gay.” If questions come up, though, he’s honest.

“Sometimes people will ask if I have a girlfriend. My answer is, ‘No and I never will. I’m gay,’” he replies. “Most people are cool with that.”

He does note, however, that males in the kitchen can sometimes talk a little rough about the LGBT community.

Bari Musacchio, owner of New York City’s Baz Bagel & Restaurant, a deli/diner offering an array of Jewish specialties, agrees that is sometimes the case. “Sometimes men in the kitchen can get a little macho.” Nevertheless, she has never had any problems as a lesbian restaurant owner or when she worked in other restaurants.

Musacchio believes there are more lesbian chefs than gay ones and that the front of the house opened the gates to gays and lesbians in the restaurant industry.

“Half our front of the house staff is gay,” she says. “I can’t think of any restaurant where there aren’t gays in the front of the house.”

The number of gays and lesbians in the front of the house may be an indication of an accepting restaurant clientele. Who is serving or cooking doesn’t seem to be an issue with restaurant patrons.

Chris Trapani is the transgender chef/owner of Urban Cowboy food truck and catering in Austin, Texas. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, where he lived for 30 years, Trapani worked in casual restaurants, fine dining rooms and catering companies before opening his own business. He got free publicity for his business by being the first transgender chef to appear on the Food Network. “I was worried that the show might hurt my business.”

It didn’t. After the program aired in August 2013, Trapani had 1,000 hits on his website. His business doubled and has continued to increase for the past three years.

“It shows me how far we have come with acceptance,” he says.

Trapani believes self-confidence is the key to acceptance in the kitchen. “Before I transitioned it was harder for me to be taken seriously in the kitchen because I had my own issues.” Like Musacchio, he also believes customers care more about the food than who is cooking it.

“If someone has a problem with who or what I am, then I don’t want to cook for them anyway,” he says.

Customers don’t care that Jay Qualls, owner of Frosted Affair in Nashville, Tennessee, is gay. They do care that he was named one of 2015’s top ten cake artists in North America by Dessert Professional magazine. They go to his shop for his cakes, not his lifestyle.

Qualls is a career changer, working first in health care. “I took control of my own destiny and opened a bakery.” It was a good move for him. “The culinary industry is diverse and absolutely open to the LGBT community,” he says.

Noting that he has never experienced any discrimination, he believes that in the culinary world you can be “whoever you want and love whoever you want.” He proved that recently by getting married to his partner. And yes, he baked the cake.

“My orientation does not define who I am as an entrepreneur,” he says.

Susan Feniger is widely recognized by her colleagues as a great chef and a successful entrepreneur. The celebrity chef owns and co-owns restaurants in California and Las Vegas. The fact that she is a lesbian never comes into play. “I’ve never had any issues – not in the kitchen, with the media, or on TV. But, I’ve always been fairly well respected as a chef and restauranteur. That probably helped.”

Feniger’s restaurant kitchens are open to everyone who has the talent to be there.

“It’s an employer’s responsibility to treat all people equally and to be open and accepting of everyone regardless of their race, color or sexual orientation,” she says.