Four LGBTQ Central Florida and Tampa Bay chefs on finding their tribe in the restaurant life

By : Holly V. Kapherr
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The idiom “love is love” became a rallying cry throughout the LGBTQ community since the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in 2015. But for these four gay and lesbian chefs in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg, food is love.

Most of them grew up cooking at the feet of their families. Jeannie Pierola, chef and owner of the Edison Food + Drink Lab in Tampa, learned from her Spanish and Cuban grandmothers. Top Chef Seattle alum and executive chef at St. Pete boîtes BellaBrava and Stillwaters Tavern, Jeffrey Jew, learned from his father and half-Chinese grandfather.

Trina Gregory-Propst, chef and owner of Se7en Bites in Orlando, learned from her grandmother. Former chef-owner of K Restaurant, Kevin Fonzo, now head of Kevin Fonzo Enterprises, learned from visiting his Italian grandparents in the summer. Fonzo says, “Cooking was the mechanism through which we spent time with our loved ones.”

Now, these chefs are building families of their own — the crews that run their kitchens. Restaurants have long been more than just a place where people come to eat. The front and back of the house have evolved into refuges for those who struggle with both internal and external forces, from substance abuse to gender identity.

In the kitchen, you can be you

Restaurant kitchens are a safe haven for undocumented immigrants, individuals dealing with substance abuse disorders, and those who feel like they just don’t fit in, including members of the LGBTQ community. For many of these chefs, line cooks, dishwashers, bartenders and servers, the restaurant is their family; sometimes because their birth family is absent from their lives.

Many celebrities have been open about the solace they’ve found working with food and have brought awareness to the power of the kitchen in healing lives. Travel Channel host of Bizarre Foods chef Andrew Zimmern struggled with substance abuse and was homeless before walking into a restaurant, getting sober and finding eventual success in cooking.

“Work is salvation,” says Pierola, who rebuilt the kitchen at award-winning Bern’s Steakhouse and SideBern’s before opening the Edison. “It fortifies you. It’s humbling. It is the healthiest thing we can do to build self-worth and personal pride.”

As with any creative career, gay, lesbian and other queer individuals are drawn to the kitchen because of its open and accepting environment. As Gregory-Propst puts it, “the kitchen gives us the opportunity to live out loud.”

Gregory-Propst and her wife of four years, Va, run the creative direction and operations behind the breakout bakery and brunch spot Se7en Bites. “Our staff is like our family. Often, they spend more time with us than they do with their own families.” Two-thirds of the staff at Se7en Bites identifies as LGBTQ.

Jew got the call from casting directors for Top Chef Seattle while on a train to New York City from Washington, D.C., where he was the chef at Blackbird.

“I have no idea how they got my name,” he says. “I assumed it was because they needed to fill a ‘gay chef’ role on the show.” It is Bravo, after all. “Funny enough, even though I was the gay chef on my season, the winner of Top Chef Seattle, Kristen Kish, came out shortly after the season aired.”

Jew attended the Culinary Institute of America and quickly gained notoriety in the culinary world, appointed head chef at the Italian embassy for a time. He also worked under chef Angela Hartnett, a protégé of Gordon Ramsey.

“Angela once heard someone make a comment about me being gay. It wasn’t a flattering comment. She wouldn’t have any of that. She put a stop to it right away. That was the beginning and end of any discrimination I faced in the kitchen. I’ve never felt as at-home or accepted as I do in a restaurant kitchen,” says Jew.

It doesn’t matter who or what you are, as long as you can cook

Pierola grew up the daughter of a hotelier family in Ybor City before moving to Anna Maria Island when she was nine years old. Her father was a Cuban immigrant and her mother was of Spanish decent from New Orleans. “We had an intense family. My parents were always in disagreement and fought constantly, but they loved each other and were married for 65 years.”

Pierola learned early on that her work ethic would carry her as far as she could dream. “My natural personality is well-suited to the kitchen; I’m bombastic, I demand respect, I don’t have a problem speaking my mind.”

Pierola originally dreamed of being a comedienne but soon realized that a fear of rejection would hold her back from taking the stage. Ironically, she was publicly outed, with her then girlfriend, in front of an audience of thousands at a stand-up show by the comedian Gallagher.

“I look like your ‘average’ lesbian,” says Pierola, who rocks a pixie haircut and clogs most days. “I’ve never experienced any outward bigotry or discrimination in any restaurant kitchen, but I’m sure it’s happened behind my back.”

Fonzo agrees regarding the solidarity in restaurant kitchens. “The industry is such a diverse workplace because it takes all kinds of people with different skill levels, socio-economic backgrounds, cultures and different career goals to make it work,” he says. “We have to respect each other and rely on each other to make each individual job work.”

Gregory-Propst, who ties her fire-red hair in a kerchief and wears a full face of pin-up-style makeup each day, relays a similar sentiment.

“I don’t look like what most people think of as a lesbian, so being gay has never been front-and-center for me in my career. I’ve never felt discrimination because of my sexual identity, but I’ve never hidden it either.”

Gregory-Propst was the oldest in her class at the Valencia College culinary school, and focused more on advancing past her classmates, most of whom had just graduated high school.

“I knew I needed to be right now where these kids were going to be in their careers in 20 years. It wasn’t about being gay, or even about being a woman — it was about my age.”

Pierola, Gregory-Propst and Jew all knew that in order to make it in their profession, they’d have to work longer, faster, harder and better than anyone else in the kitchen. Pierola never received professional training, and Gregory-Propst and Jew both came into their careers later in life. Jew puts it this way, “It doesn’t matter who you are in the kitchen — you can be gay, straight, black, white — it doesn’t matter, as long as you can cook.”

We’re all family here

Three out of four of these chefs came out in the 1980s and ‘90s, when being gay was less socially acceptable than it is now. “It’s a completely different environment today,” Gregory-Propst says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy by any means.” Fonzo came out to his family on Thanksgiving — the food holiday, of course — nine years ago.

Each had different experiences explaining their sexual identity to their biological families; some experienced their “baby boomer” parents going through initial shock and coming to terms with their child’s sexuality and lifestyle. However, none of them felt ostracized or abandoned by their families. Reactions ranged from “so what?” to “it’s just a phase” to “we figured as much.”

Pierola and Gregory-Propst’s families both came from open and accepting industries: Pierola’s family owned a hotel and Gregory-Propst’s mother was a hairdresser.

“My mom still suggests I try on a dress every once in a while,” says Pierola. “It’s adorable. She’s just from a different time.”

“There’s a family mentality in the kitchen,” says Jew of his time in restaurant life. “Once you’re in, you’re in forever.” Pierola cites the connection food has to love as the thing that binds a kitchen team together. Food is directly related to giving comfort, to emotional memories and familial bonds. “I’ve met many people whom the kitchen has saved. Making food for others is a way to express our love for them. Making food together, as a team, is an unbreakable bond.”

Fonzo has equated food to family for his whole life, including in his College Park restaurant. “My happiest memories of growing up were either being in the kitchen cooking or gathering around the dinner table,” he says. “I got a job as a dishwasher when I was 15, and after my first time in a commercial kitchen, I was hooked on the camaraderie. We are open-minded and embrace our differences.” Those differences, Fonzo says, have helped him find success in his career.

Se7en Bites is a place where many young chefs come to explore their creativity and find a home for their talent, and though being gay isn’t the primary reason for the restaurant’s draw, it’s a factor.

“Often, I see young people come into our staff family with the weight of the world on their shoulders,” says Gregory-Propst. “When they’re here, they don’t have to hide who they are or who they love. This is a safe haven. It’s about the food, it’s about family and it’s about taking care of each other.”

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Special thanks to Quench Lounge in Largo for lending their space for our Tampa Bay chefs photography!

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