10 min

Under the apron

Toronto's queer chefs come out of the kitchen

While fags abound  in restaurants and bars across the city, patrons are far more likely to find a gay waiter or bartender working in the business than a gay dishwasher or cook.  The kitchen still seems a heterosexual stronghold, yet the increasingly competitive restaurant industry requires imaginative concoctions and creative presentation — the perfect ingredients to allow a gay chef  to step up and save the day.

Five of Toronto’s gay chefs come out of the pantry and dish on being the kitchen’s lone ‘mo, cooking for picky pink palates and restaurant romance.

Tony Barone

Seated in his relaxed King St W bistro 40-year-old Tony Barone shakes his head and smiles as he describes the business  he’s devoted his life to.

“Waiters and cooks are probably the craziest people in the world and the craziness grows if you’re in this industry for a long period of time,” he says laughing. “Even the best of us if we’re not twisted, we’re just a little bit bent.”

Barone blames tight working quarters, high-stress dining rooms and a competitive industry for the various coping mechanisms he and staff adopt — such as laughter and dark humour.

Accordingly the owner of Toba — his first and surname abridged — hesitates to date folks from within the industry, despite the reality that other restaurant, bar and entertainment staff mirror his nocturnal lifestyle and offer a convenient solution to his party-of-one predicament.

“I’m fickle and there has to be chemistry,” he says. “Often if you’re working in the back of the house and dating someone in the front of the house there doesn’t tend  to be that chemistry.”

Following his instincts has put Barone  on a balanced path to success — in and out of the kitchen. He embraced his early aptitude for cuisine, nurtured by his Italian mom and confirmed in Grade 9 when he realized he knew more about cooking than his home economics teacher.

Stints at Fred’s Not Here, Mildred Pierce and a year cooking in Italy inspired Barone to certify his passion by enrolling at George Brown’s reputable culinary school. This past spring he completed sufficient hours to earn his red seal — the top echelon in chef’s certification. He now teaches at the college.

At Toba cooks overlook the dining area from the open kitchen, generating sumptuous scents from robust bolognaise sauce, herb-encrusted rack of lamb or pancetta-topped arctic char. Barone’s partiality for cozy dining has limited the bistro to just  60 seats in a warmly decorated and candlelit dining room.

“I’ve always preferred working in smaller more intimate settings where there was more attention to detail,” says Barone.

The seven-year-old bistro with a flair  for fusion has a strong queer clientele that appreciates select dining. “I’m glad they come down from the village because food-wise there isn’t as much there,” says Barone.

The affable chef shrugs off the egg-white-only and dressing-on-the-side requests that he says accompany many fat-fearing Church-and-Wellesley types. Barone can relate. He maintains his svelte yet bearish physique with healthy eating. “At 40 I’m more careful because food doesn’t come  off you that easily,” he says.

The blue-eyed bachelor recently purchased a loft in the gaybourhood, decorated to suit his easygoing disposition and subdued campiness. “It’s relaxed, minimalist with chachkas here and there.”

Most importantly it’s home to his English bulldog, Bacchus — named after the god of wine — who beckons his owner home for midday walks. “It’s a nice break from the restaurant.”

Barone pictures himself one day cooking somewhere to the south. “Toronto is a great city but I’m a summer baby and can see myself cooking in shorts and a T-shirt.”

Elena Embrioni

Elena Embrioni is a true foodie. It’s as evident as her Spanish mother tongue when she discusses a rare, soon-to-be-available olive oil her supplier has sourced from a tiny farm in Napa, California.

“It’s incredible,” she says, her stern face softening with a smile. “I love introducing customers to something you won’t find in the supermarket. When you put quality in your mouth there is such a difference on your taste buds.”

With her passion for food and obvious enjoyment in connecting people with cuisine they’ll love, Embrioni, 46, is well positioned at Dish Cooking Studio. Stationed at the site’s impressive kitchen Embrioni has  a perfect vantage point from which to  witness the daily goings-on and chat up customers to the café.

Her introduction to cooking was less friendly. Arriving in Toronto in 1989 from Argentina, broke and in need of a job, Embrioni washed dishes at an Italian joint in Mississauga. A temperamental chef would throw dishes at every aggravation.

“A lot of it was from a fear of people discovering the secret ingredients in recipes,” Embrioni recalls. “What the fuck was that? So self-involved.”

After 15 years cooking at Southern Accent, where Embrioni gained a strong reputation among restaurantgoers, she now dedicates her time to easing the intimidation some feel when entering the kitchen through cooking classes at Dish.

“I love the ones who are beginners but with a passion and interest,” she says. “They’re astonished when I show them the simplest things like how to remove the pit from an avocado without scarring the avocado. I love that.”

She still gets a charge out of the flurry  to be found in a busy kitchen but doesn’t allow it to rile her.

“I try to mentally change some people’s minds who get angry in the kitchen so they don’t get too abusive,” she says. It’s easy to picture the 46-year-old diffusing tension with her humour and joie de vivre. “I can be fun and sarcastic and don’t get too ‘cheffy.'”

Embrioni loves perusing local farmers markets to stock Dish’s and her own fridge. “I love Riverdale and Brick Works,” she says. “The feeling I get there is fantastic.”

Culinary adventures also inspire her vacations as she travels to destinations like Prince Edward County and Stratford.

Embrioni aims to use organic and local produce wherever possible, a principle she adopted early in life.

“I come from a country where the seasons were important,” she says. “Fall was fall and spring was spring. We didn’t get papayas in February and I’ve never wanted to eat things coming from I don’t know where. I think every cook has a big mother inside them and I don’t want to give my kids bad food.”

Embrioni’s grounded personality served her well when it came to coming out. Despite rampant discrimination of queers in Argentina, “I think I was never in. It never occurred to me to be scared of anything, certainly not my family.”

She returns home regularly and eventually sees herself retiring there. “When you get older you always come back to your nest.”

Michael Guenther

Michael Guenther’s restaurant is aptly named. Big Mamma’s Boy — which Guenther runs with business partner Heather Mackenzie — is a family affair. His brother-in-law works in the kitchen. Close friend and local drag queen Titi Galore decorated the 19th-century Cabbagetown home-turned-restaurant. Guenther’s boyfriend  Tri Hua is the unofficial taste tester.

But the influence of Guenther’s family is most evident on the menu of the kitschy Parliament St eatery. The 38-year-old confesses he has no formal chef training, having learned everything he knows from experience and through loved ones.

“Everything on there is from my family, friends or travels,” he says, gesturing to the dog-eared black-and-white photocopy. The Manitoba farmer’s sausage is sent via bus regularly from his dad in Guenther’s hometown of Altona, Manitoba. The dipping mustard was his Aunt Hildy’s recipe. His sister adapted the pizza dough to satisfy  a gluten-free diet that Galore follows.

The gratification Guenther gets from cooking at Big Mamma’s Boy is in watching the eye-bulging “Mmms” from satisfied customers.

“They’re my babies,” says Guenther of the dozen and a half items, plus unlimited pizza varieties, ideal for dinner patrons hungry for home-cooked comfort food.

“Everything on the menu takes time  so I really have to use my brain to organize myself,” he says.

Guenther, who works at the restaurant seven days a week, keeps to a precise schedule. His day begins at 6am to drive boyfriend, 32-year-old Hua, to work. Following that Guenther hits the gym and the market for the restaurant’s freshest picks.

By 1:30pm he’s back home to watch  The Bold and the Beautiful soap opera. “It’s  a have-to-see and makes me cackle,” he says.

Then Guenther squeezes in a nap before work where he meets Hua, hungry to eat with his partner before the dinner hour rush.

Guenther says the tidbits of time with his partner help to nurture their relationship. “The restaurant is demanding and when it comes to time, it gets quantity but Tri gets quality,” he says with a smile.

He suspects the three years of dating he and Hua logged prior to opening Big Mamma’s Boy were the couple’s saving grace. “Otherwise it would be really hard to meet someone with this schedule.”

Although Guenther came out upon his arrival in Toronto at age 24 he waited to come out to family until he had a partner. “I didn’t want to blow their minds with thoughts of promiscuity,” he says.

Guenther says he’s happy to consider Toronto home. “Coming from a town of 5,000 I had a good look around when I got here and realized I needed to sort out this sexual identity stuff otherwise I’ll be dusty and old and nobody will want me.”

Hua has slowly ingratiated himself into the Manitoba-based Mennonite Guenther family. Most relatives met him just last year at Guenther’s brother’s wedding.

The pair live nearby to Big Mamma’s Boy and have purchased a condo being built at Queen and Pape, but plans of marriage are on hold. “Given the amount of people who want to come it’s not going to happen small so it’s not going to happen soon.”

Kim Sheppard

Kim Sheppard is celebrating one year in the Big Smoke and having the time of her life.

“It’s amazing to live in Toronto — such  a queer city — and see how vibrant the community is,” says the cherub-faced  farm girl from Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia. “It’s been such an education.”

Her classroom has been mainly Queen St W. She lives in the neighbourhood and works at The Beaver where she cooks five nights of the week.

“There are a lot of lesbians on my block and I find it this really amazing Sesame Street-parallel queer existence,” she says. “It’s nice not to be the only one, alone in Nova Scotia.”

The cheerful 26-year-old started working at Fresh on Spadina when she moved to Toronto and the gay-friendly restaurant introduced her to countless queers about town. She jumped at a cooking position at The Beaver, her favourite bar with a queer vibe and unpretentious dinner menu.

Sheppard’s arrival in Toronto followed a global culinary journey. At 17 she left home for a student exchange in Argentina where Sheppard lived with a family of restaurateurs. The business tweaked her interest.

Years later, in Montreal, she worked at a vegan restaurant which suited her food choices at the time. “I became very interested in food politics, commercial food production and food waste and becoming vegan seemed like the appropriate defiant statement I wanted to make,” she says.

Sheppard’s radical values have softened over time and she admits, “I now eat meat but try to eat locally raised and shop at farmer’s markets.”

Her passion for local, organic and  garden-fresh food is evident in the restaurant’s enough-for-two salads piled with green beans, cherry tomatoes and cran- berries, in a creative arrangement across the plate. Sheppard’s distinctive food presentation is the influence of her inventive day job as a video artist.

“I have an aesthetically trained eye so I’m always interested in how a plate looks and making the most of colours and textures,” she says.

Away from the restaurant Sheppard is tinkering at a project which highlights her interest in exhibitionism on the internet. She regularly sifts through family vacation footage and videos of YouTube subscribers singing into their camera with Idol-like aspirations.

“My inspiration in arts comes through the city I’m living in and Toronto has presented me with so much diversity to draw from,” she says.

Back at The Beaver the fun of assembling eye-catching salads compensates for the drudgery of burrito preparation. “It’s tasty, filling, cheap and popular but after the 100th I don’t want to make another one,” she says.

But the aggravation doesn’t show on her smiling face. Stationed in her kitchenette beside the bar Sheppard is on display as much as any bartender.

“Being so visible I get immediate feedback and can respond quickly if somebody’s not completely happy,” she says.

Working front and centre helps Sheppard socialize plenty but romantic pursuits have hit the back burner. “I’ve had some hard knocks and my heart broken a little bit recently so I’m just taking some time off the dating scene.”

Tim Tutton

“I was a little worried at first,” Tim Tutton says, recalling the job offer Il Fornello restaurants made for him at the Church St location in 2006. “Gay men are picky and I thought this would be a really tough crowd.” His hunch was correct.

Tutton’s 10 years of Toronto cooking experience at eateries such as Canoe, Monsoon and Brasserie X gave him a sense of the average city patron and its disparity from the typical gay male dining experience.

The Kitchener native is surprised at how many gay customers send back their dishes. “Not because the food’s bad, just that it’s not what they expected or had in mind.”

As a result of his success with Church St’s persnickety patrons Tutton, 40, was recently named the company’s creative special director. He determines the various specials that are available at all nine Il Fornello locations across the GTA.

“If something works here [on Church St] it will work anywhere,” Tutton says laughing. “It’s either hit or miss.”

Apart from their fussiness Tutton observes that Il Fornello’s gay clients are bigger drinkers, later diners and better tippers than the restaurant’s average patrons. He attributes the drinking and starlight dining to the party-mindedness of patrons with other village plans post-dinner.

As for generous gratuities Tutton says, “Whether a gay man can afford it, tipping well is more important than looking cheap.”

Tutton also observes more romance in the air of the Church St eatery than he’s used to. “It’s a little cruisey and we catch the odd couple in the bathroom,” he says. “Bartenders and servers get hit on a lot with customers leaving phone numbers for them. There’s a little bit of relationships popping up between staff which usually makes for one  of the two quitting once there’s a breakup.”

In the kitchen, however, Tutton is the lone homo. “It’s fun,” he says. “I can be campy and poke fun and my straight colleagues enjoy it.”

He’s come to love Il Fornello’s Italian cuisine. “Italian is much more rustic and simplified but really good flavours,” he says.

Among Tutton’s favourites on the menu are the Penne Capri — a flavourful mix of herbed chicken, wild mushrooms and grana padano — and the signature Chicken Supreme — prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with Fontana cheese and spinach.

Outside of the restaurant Tutton loves  to delve into a good gay novel, favouring storylines set in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I think it was an easier time for gay men, with the exception of AIDS,” says Tutton. “It’s too demanding to be a gay man today, just the whole look you have to have.”

The well-dressed bachelor admits he’s as likely to be found shopping in Winners as Holt Renfrew but most often caught at Dinetz, a cooking warehouse on King St W searching for the latest utensil to augment his collection.

Tutton loves to entertain friends, from cooking to setting the table, but notes that friends are reluctant to host him, a hazard of the job. “They’re intimidated that as a chef I’m going to critique their food.”