Meet the (Gay) Top Chef Masters
Last Wednesday, a GLBT community’s favorite reality show returned to the airwaves -- Top Chef Masters, on BRAVO-TV. Where the original version of Top Chef has aspiring cooks fighting for the title and the chance to win money to launch their first restaurant, Top Chef Masters is a roster of seasoned, accomplished professional chefs who are already established in the business. They seek the same title, but their prize money is donated to their favorite charity.
If you’ve ever worked in a professional kitchen of a restaurant, hotel or resort, you would understand that it is quite militaristic. French chefs are notorious for making an apprentice peel mounds of potatoes just for the sake of learning how to peel a potato to the standard of a French chef. Does it really take two years to learn this? Japanese chefs are even more demanding (and don’t forget they have really sharp knives).
Up until recent years, this culinary environment for GLBT chefs was like the US-Military: "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." However, in the past few seasons of Top Chef, GLBT contestants have taken center stage and have started to tell. Along the way they’ve become visible role models for our younger GLBT community and have opened discussion to such gay subjects as same-sex marriage, equality and gay acceptance. Suddenly the presence of a GLBT person, who is not a "character" in a scripted sit-com, started to appear because of Top Chef. These contestants are natural, honest and real. They also make for great entertainment.
’I’m not your bitch, Bitch!’
In Season One, who could forget when chef Dave Martin, 40- year old gay contestant from Long Beach, California lashed out to the intense bi-sexual chef, Tiffani Faison during one of the challenges, "I’m not your bitch, Bitch!" (Ah, gay pride at its best.) Season One also gave us our first gay wedding when the two "Scotts" were wed in then Pre-Prop 8 San Francisco, California. We felt sorry for contestant Lee Anne Wong, whose menu was chosen by the grooms for that battle. It just seemed there was no pleasing those two brides.
Season Two introduced us to lesbian Josie Smith-Malave, who after she was eliminated from the show, hit the press waves when her lesbian partner and she were victims of a gay bashing attack in New York. In another episode, we met Chicago gay chef contestant, Dale Levitski who has been cooking professionally for 15 years. One of the stereotypes he’s had to deal with is the preconceived notion of being the big snappy queen in the room.
"I’ve walked into kitchens feeling a little under the gun," Levitski stated in a Chicago Tribune interview, "Thinking about what other people are going to think about me being gay, and you definitely have a little bit of insecurity about it."
Last year Chef Ashley Merriman from New York City voiced her concern about one episode’s challenge. Ashley felt uncomfortable catering for a straight Bachelor/Bachelorette party at a fancy resort in Las Vegas, when in her own life, her partner and she couldn’t do the same because they were lesbians.
Bravo’s Cohen :: gay people integral
After the series aired, Chef Tom Colicchio, the head judge of the series (and heterosexual) went into length how the challenge was not meant to hurt anyone or discriminate, but he did welcome the open discussion that it brought to the table.
"The institution of marriage should be available to all, "Chef Colicchio commented on his Top Chef Blog, "The idea that you can have a life-long partner and not make decisions for them in a hospital, not share in insurance benefits, not automatically have parental rights unless you are the birth parent, is just flat-out wrong."
Andy Cohen, Bravo’s Senior Vice President of Original Programming and Development and host the network’s Watch What Happens, explained how the gay openness came about.
"Bravo has always unwrapped the layers of the creative process in food, fashion, beauty and design." Andy Cohen explains, "Those fields seem to attract a lot of gay men and women so it’s natural that gay people have been an integral part of Bravo’s evolution over the years. Top Chef is certainly a big part of that equation. Gay people can cook, and it’s fun to watch them cook on Bravo."
Yet, before all of these newbie chefs hit the pit there were these veteran GLBT chefs who have risen above all of the fire in the kitchen and have created their own successful enterprises. They are the chef/contestants, Susan Feniger and Jerry Traunfeld, who will compete in this new run of Top Chef Masters, and Anita Lo and Art Smith, who competed in last season’s series.
Over 30 years ago, Chef Susan Feniger, one of the "Two Hot Tamales," opened her first restaurant, City Café in Los Angeles with fellow cook, Chef Mary Sue Milliken. City Café later turned into the current Border Grill, their version of a taco-stand serving authentic home cooking and street foods of Mexico. Always ahead of the curve, Susan and Mary Sue are literally "driving" one the latest fads in the local culinary scene, with their roaming restaurant, the Border Grill Truck.
"Thirty years ago I went to Paris," Chef Feniger recalls of her early days as one of the first females in a male dominated career, "And I was so focused on learning everything I could that I can’t recall ever feeling discriminated against. Who knows what was going on behind my back (she laughs), but I remember vowing that I would carry the same heavy pots that the men did. I just wanted to learn."
Chefs Susan and Mary Beth have written several cookbooks on Mexican cuisine and also had their own television show on the Food Network. They are a handful of female American chefs who became an early presence on the USA culinary revolution.
"I’ve always been pretty out with my sexuality," Chef Feniger discusses, "I’d always mention my life partner in interviews, or include her in m public appearances, but the only time I remember being quiet was when we started our television show fifteen years ago. There was a TV-Guide interview and I wouldn’t talk about it, but I’m not sure why I did that because I wasn’t quiet about it to my own parents. The climate was different. Look at the Top Chef contestants now."
The Two Tamales also own several other successful restaurants in the Los Angeles area, but recently, Susan went solo and opened Street, a hip new joint that focuses on the street food from around the world. (Street hosted the opening night viewing party of Top Chef Masters.)
"I was just happy that I found a career that I was passionate about," Chef Feniger explains, "When you open a new restaurant it’s 18 hours a day, 7 days a week and I remember cooking the first night at Street, under this intense wood fire and thinking this is just the best."
Working under such a demanding time schedule was difficult for Chef Feniger to commit to doing the show, and then trying to decide which charity she wanted to fight for because she is involved with several passionate causes.
"This show was pressure," Chef Feniger remembers, I’ve done the Iron Chef show, but this was real pressure because I think everyone wanted to win the money for their charities."
Susan is on the board of the Los Angeles GLBT Center in Hollywood and a Board Member for the Scleroderma Research Foundation, a chronic and debilitating disease. Chef Feniger decided to do the show to bring awareness to the two causes, but her prize money will go to the Scleroderma Research cause.
"We tend to live in big cities and think our gay community is fine," Susan announces, "But there are places in the world -- in our own country where it is not accepted to be gay and out of the closet. We came together for the AIDS crisis, but sometimes we tend to take the back seat. I hope by me appearing on this show will help people get involved again with our community."
One of the first chefs to get booted-off after the premier challenge is Chef Jerry Traunfeld from Poppy Restaurant in Seattle, Washington. Chef Jerry is the author of The Herb Farm Cookbook. His charity was for the International gay rights foundation, IGLHRC.
"Being gay, myself," Chef Traunfeld looked into the camera and said: "It angers me that in 80 countries in the world you could be throw into prison for being gay and lesbian or even perceived for that."
This June, Jerry and his partner Stephen will celebrate their 30th anniversary of being together and Chef Jerry was happy that Bravo asked for photos of Stephen to include in the series.
"Most of the energy of the LGBT community in this country is going into marriage equality," Jerry explains, "And it sucks that Stephen and I can’t marry, but I thought it was most meaningful to choose a charity that advocates for basic human rights of LGBT people worldwide.
’Allowed me to be myself’
Chef Art Smith, the charismatic and fun contestant from season one of Top Chef Masters, has created a huge culinary empire with his restaurants and cookbooks. He’s just finished a pilot for CBS called Beat the Chef.
"What was amazing for me on Top Chef Masters," Chef Smith recalls, "Was that they allowed me to be myself. I’ve always been out and open, but I was out and open for Top Chef."
Art Smith will always be known as "Oprah’s" chef, where he was the personal chef for the TV-icon and where we first met him. Art continues his relationship with the Harpo Company where he is a contributing editor to O, the Oprah Magazine and the food section of Oprah.com. He also continues making appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." However it was on Top Chef Masters that Art Smith comfortably exploded into our living rooms with his wit and fun, comfortable gay sense of humor.
"The response from the show was so positive," Chef Art recalls, "I was accepted because I was authentic. I was real and I urge everyone to be their true selves. When you hide in the closet? What does it do? You don’t love yourself and a sad heart does a lot of damage."
A fervent supporter of the gay community, in 2003 Art established Common Threads, a nonprofit organization based on his passionate belief that families (whether a family by blood or a family of friends) all share an innate desire to care for each other, regardless of culture, race or geographic location. Chef Smith and his life partner, Jesus Salgueiro, a Chicago based artist who celebrate each other’s careers with this foundation. Now that the District of Columbia has approved legal same-sex unions, Art and Jesus will marry this summer and have a big celebration at his DC restaurant, Art and Soul.
"Hiding makes you uncomfortable, which makes everyone uncomfortable," Chef Smith announces, "I’ve noticed that the younger generation thinks you can’t have a long-term gay relationship. Jesus and I are proof that it exists and this right is worth fighting for. We can’t hide anymore."
Another GLBT member from the Top Chef Master alumni is last season’s Anita Lo, who is the owner of New York City’s critically praised Annisa Restaurant in Greenwich Village. Annisa will be reopening this month after a renovation. Chef Lo was an undergraduate student in French Literature at Columbia University, but a few trips to Paris caused her to see France in a totally different light. Chef Lo relocated to Paris, where she studied at the esteemed Ritz-Escoffier school for culinary arts.
"It didn’t matter if I was a woman, or gay," Chef Lo reminisces on her beginning years in Paris, "In France it was such a military life. Nobody talked about their private lives. It was work, work, and work! I had no time to be gay."
When Chef Lo returned to New York City, she worked for the famous 4-Star New York icon, Chef David Bouley at his flagship restaurant in Tribeca. Ten years ago she struck out on her own with the Greenwich Village favorite Annisa, which serves contemporary American cuisine with accents from Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean. Critical acclaim followed, Crain’s magazine named her as one of the top 100 influential women in New York business.
"Being a gay Chef in New York City," Anita explains, "Is quite normal. My restaurant is blocks away from Stonewall, where it all started. My front of house staff are all artists, my customers -- We just all want to be in a positive environment. I hope to achieve this in my work and my restaurant."
Another exciting feature of Annisa restaurant is that the wine list is composed of international wines that are made predominately by female wine makers. "Annisa," is Arabic for "women."
Because of their appearances on Top Chef Master, these chefs have become role models for young GLBT people seeking a career in this culinary industry thinking it’s as glamorous as it appears on the show.
"It’s important in this industry not to be too obsessed," Chef Lo offers advice to these newcomers’, "You have to be persistent and understand there are sacrifices -- long hours, no money, you never see your friends who work during the day -- the kitchen’s hot."
"This is your life," Chef Smith confirms, "No matter which career path you take, I urge you to let it unfold and be authentic."
"When I was a kid I was obsessed with cooking and baking," Chef Jerry reminisces. "It was very unusual for a boy to have those interests, yet ironically it was unusual to see a woman chef. Now I always hear of boys who cook as a hobby and there are lots of women chefs. Like anything, just be true to yourself and choose to do what makes you happy."
"Top Chef can offer instant celebrity success," Chef Feniger includes, "But they have to understand they must learn the basics -- there’s a reason you’ve got to peel those potatoes."
Top Chef Masters Season Two is on Bravo. (Check your local listings for times and channel.)