America's Most Influential Chef Was Gay as Hell

And it's barely been talked about until now.

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May 1 2017, 9:23pm

Photo of James Beard via Wikimedia user Bill Golladay

It's possible that no two words in American food culture carry as much weight as the name of James Beard.

What Alfred Hitchcock is to filmmaking, Beard is to the culinary arts—he didn't invent American cuisine, but in many ways, he defined it for generations of chefs and gourmets to come. Craig Claiborne once declared Beard a "missionary in the gospel of bringing good cooking to the home table." Even more emphatically, Julia Child once said, "In the beginning, there was Beard"—a quote repeated by food critics to the point of cliché.

Child isn't far off the mark. It's difficult to overstate Beard's far-reaching influence: He pioneered food TV with the first-ever network cooking series in 1946; he authored nearly two dozen books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles on gastronomy; through it all, his work inspired home cooks to no longer see food as mere sustenance but as a delightful, indulgent form of entertainment.

Today, chefs dream of wearing his face around their necks; he is the namesake for the annual James Beard Awards, more or less the Oscars of food, which returns to the Lyric Opera of Chicago on May 1. And though his impact was as immense as his 6'4", 300 pound frame, another enormous part of Beard's life hardly factors into his legacy: his sexuality.

Beard came out as gay in a revised version of his memoir, Delights and Prejudices, in 1981. But given his legendary status, it's surprising how his homosexuality has appeared as little more than a footnote to his career.

Newspaper obituaries in 1985, the year he died of congestive heart failure, made only winking references to his sexuality. And in two major biographies published in the 90s— James Beard: A Biography and Epicurean Delight: The Life and Times of James Beard—Robert Clark and Evan Jones, both straight men, seem to treat it as an inconsequential detail. Even the current bio page on the website of the James Beard Foundation fails to mention his 30-year relationship with Gino Cofacci, a pastry chef and author of two cookbooks.

"I think there's been a reluctance—or not much interest—in viewing someone's sexuality as central to what they created in their life," John Birdsall, a former professional cook and two-time James Beard Award–winning food writer, told me. Currently, Birdsall spends his days poring over the many facets of Beard's life for a forthcoming biography. It will be the first since 1994, and Birdsall intends to bring Beard's queerness to the fore.

"We've known that Beard was a really a pivotal figure in American food in the 20th century," said Birdsall. "But I think we're only beginning to think of his sexuality as part of that."

Of course, Beard was so prodigious that it's entirely possible to survey his career without once mentioning his personal life. But can you really so easily decouple Beard's queerness from his culinary sensibilities, which so brazenly stood in contrast to American norms at the time?

Birdsall doesn't think so. As he argued in a Beard Award–winning essay for Lucky Peach magazine, it was the sexuality itself of three gay culinary masters—Beard, the aforementioned Craig Claiborne, and Richard Olney—that played a central role in both the aesthetics of their cooking and, with their outsized influence, the underpinnings of American food as we know it.

"For me, Beard represents this cultural shift in America that really embraced pleasure for its own sake," Birdsall said, explaining how the state of US food culture at the time amounted to little more than streamlined industrial cuisine. "I see queer figures in 20th-century American food who were standing in opposition to that and who were the start of the food culture of today, where we can enjoy food that's intensely pleasurable and accept it on its own terms."

Of course, not everyone agrees about the centrality of sexuality (or, for that matter, gender identity and expression) to the work of a chef—not even queer chefs. In the same way that women chefs may see adjectives like "female" and "woman" as subordinating, many LGBTQ chefs today resist qualifiers such as "gay," "lesbian," and "queer"—insisting that their work stands on its own merits. In fact, Birdsall touched on the difficulties of writing about the queerness of San Francisco–based queer chefs in another Beard Award-winning essay in Jarry magazine.

In a way, the historical erasure of Beard's sexuality has roots in a broader straight male-dominated culture in professional kitchens. Despite the increasingly visible presence of queer culinary celebrities, such as Ted Allen of Chopped and Elizabeth Falkner of Iron Chef, the back of house can still prove hostile to LGBTQ people and, for many of the same reasons, straight women.

This queer experience in America's restaurant kitchens was the topic of a private roundtable discussion hosted by the James Beard Foundation last year. It was the foundation's first-ever meeting about LGBTQ food professionals; Birdsall attended the roundtable, along with more than a dozen other queer chefs, writers, and industry insiders.

The big takeaway? "The short answer is, progress has been made, but [the professional kitchen] can still be a brutal place for a queer person to navigate," Birdsall said.

"Even though many things are better than they used to be, it's really striking how isolated a lot of queer cooks still feel, how there's a real lack of mentorship, a real hunger for mentorship," he continued. "Even if it's just to be told that you're not alone—that a lot of other people are going through the same thing, have gone through the same thing, and that it's possible to get through it."

As with society at large, LGBTQ people have never possessed a quick-and-easy recipe for queer liberation—it's roll-up-your-sleeves, handle-the-heat work that transcends generations.

But it seems the food industry at large can take one small but significant step toward fuller inclusion by setting the record, well, not-so-straight on America's foremost epicure.

Follow Jon Shadel on Twitter.

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