Celebrity Dining: The Queer Legacy of Elka Gilmore

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Celebrity Dining: The Queer Legacy of Elka Gilmore

Celebrity Dining:

Elka Gilmore’s profession started with a lie.

The chef was correct eleven when she hustled her contrivance to a dishwashing gig at a French restaurant in Austin, Texas. Pretending to be some distance older, she fooled her bosses, even supposing she needed to stand on a milk crate to reach the dishes. Within three months, she was working the line, balancing the job with college.

It was the early 1970s, and Gilmore was attempting to avoid wasting ample money to fly from dwelling. She ran away at sixteen to reside with her grandmother in Madison, Wisconsin. A kitchen prodigy, she bounced from prep cook dinner to chef at a restaurant called L’Etoile after the head chef quit, staying at the restaurant unless she was 18. She was peripatetic over the subsequent two decades, working in Boston, Fresh York, Cotignac in France, and Los Angeles.

It was in San Francisco, however, the assign Gilmore grew to alter right into a megastar in no unsure phrases. She made her finest splash with Elka, a Franco-Eastern restaurant she opened with Traci Des Jardins in 1991 in Japantown. Elka was an attractive showcase for every girls folk’s artistry, with dishes like hunks of ahi tuna with miso eggplant smeared with tomato-ginger jam. She adopted her namesake restaurant with the short-lived Liberté and Oodles sooner than receding from the limelight in the aughts.

Gilmore, who died in San Francisco final July at 59 after a flurry of properly being problems, grew to alter into one in all Bay Home dining’s most recognizable names in the Nineties. She found success whereas being delivery about her queerness and championing fellow unfamiliar, feminine culinary voices. Gilmore had been out since she was 12, when she had her first lesbian relationship. “I’m a proponent of the belief that it’s tremendously important to the sphere for homosexual folks to be out,” she suggested the journalist John G. Watson of Out in April 1995. “I’ve lived my existence that method for the previous 22 years or so, a major share of my existence.”

With her restaurant Elka, she assembled an with out a doubt expert cadre of unfamiliar feminine cooks, with Des Jardins as her chef de delicacies and Elizabeth Falkner as her pastry chef. Each and every Des Jardins and Falkner went on to alter into celebrities in their very like factual — Des Jardins with San Francisco’s Jardinière, Falkner with the metropolis’s Citizen Cake and Orson.

Gilmore known raw talent. With cautious intention, she helped genius thrive. She mentored younger unfamiliar cooks, encouraging them to push boundaries with their cooking. This deepest work had public influence. To observers of Bay Home dining, it gave the influence as if a unfamiliar culinary oasis sprouted overnight below Gilmore’s search.

“That group that she save together — it regarded to be the initiating of a faction, and the faction was truly animated, truly gifted lesbian cooks,” Maria Binchet, a ancient food creator who reviewed the restaurant for Gourmet, says of Gilmore. “All of a unexpected, there was this unusual flank that was gaining momentum, autonomous of the typically male-dominated chef’s world.”

The Bay Home was no stranger to unfamiliar cooks old to Gilmore’s arrival, though visibility skewed disproportionately in direction of men. Gape at Jeremiah Tower, the homosexual man who constructed an image oozing with sensuality as he rose to prominence at Chez Panisse in the 1970s and cemented his celeb with the restaurant Stars the last decade after. The chef Gary Danko, too, made a title for himself as the chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. A ways fewer folks know of Gilmore, though. Tower and Danko, finally, are men, which guarantees certain privileges — command, a surer shot at longevity in American cultural memory.

The pastry chef Dana Farkas moved to the Bay Home with Gilmore after working with her in Los Angeles and served as the pastry chef at Elka sooner than Falkner. “Pointless to insist, Elka was entirely assured in her queerness, I will command very proud,” Farkas says. She notes that, other than Gilmore, the excessive-profile feminine cooks in the Bay Home of that technology included names like Joyce Goldstein, Nancy Oakes, Cindy Pawlcyn, Judy Rodgers, Barbara Tropp, and Alice Waters. Meanwhile, overtly unfamiliar feminine cooks like Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis of San Francisco’s Sol Y Luna tended to generate less press. Gilmore’s nationwide fame region her apart.

“I judge Elka was a pioneer in loads of suggestions,” Farkas says.


In 1981, sooner than she got right here to California, Gilmore labored for six months as an apprentice at Lou Callen Inn, a restaurant in the south of France. There, a “bully” govt chef made her about acceptance. “Then the dining room workers got right here in,” she later suggested Out, “and they became out to be all homosexual girls folk — it was correct too wild.” She’d found a unfamiliar sanctuary.

Conversations with virtually a dozen of Gilmore’s outdated college coworkers existing that Gilmore fostered a equally welcoming environment in her like kitchen at Elka, situated in Japantown’s Miyako Resort (now Resort Kabuki), which, at the time, was owned by the Kintetsu Venture Firm of The United States, a subsidiary of the Eastern corporation Kintetsu Community Holdings. A handful of Gilmore’s coworkers there mention a roughly even split between girls and men folk at the restaurant, a rarity for the technology. During her time in the alternate, Gilmore grew to alter right into a fierce advocate for girls folk in the kitchen, and a founding member of the non profit organization Females Cooks & Restaurateurs.

Gilmore’s route to renown, however, was riddled with problems. When Farkas and Gilmore moved to the Bay Home in 1990, every went out of their contrivance to search out fellow lesbian cooks. San Francisco, finally, was a unfamiliar haven. They had some anguish, though. “There was no longer loads of marketing being finished selling unfamiliar girls folk in kitchens,” Farkas says of that technology.

Silent, Gilmore had no disgrace about her unfamiliar identity. She fought for attention. “Elka was no longer vexed to insist the phrases, to receive that conversation or to correct be k with letting folks decide it out, and that was on the final old to later,” Farkas remembers. This lack of apology could presumably per chance flip extremely nice folks against her. “I witnessed several owners of agencies recoil after they found out who Elka was as an out homosexual lady,” Farkas says. “Attitudes modified, in most cases no longer for the correct or in her prefer.”

Gilmore didn’t let such setbacks deter her, though. She kept attempting for a stage the assign her skills could presumably per chance shine with out filter. Gilmore had realized the correct contrivance to outlive attempting cases early on. Her childhood wasn’t easy, Farkas notes. “Elka created a family environment in her kitchens, I imagine attributable to an absence of her like deepest family,” says Farkas.

Traci Des Jardins first realized of Gilmore relieve in 1983, when every girls folk were working in Los Angeles. In these years, Gilmore had already established herself as “any individual to form of see up to,” in Des Jardins’s phrases. It wasn’t unless they every moved to the Bay Home, though, that Gilmore and Des Jardins partnered for Elka.

Des Jardins was all nonetheless in a position to prefer a sabbatical from the restaurant alternate by 1991, having helped delivery Aqua in San Francisco. She’d labored virtually exclusively for men all over her time in the alternate. “I used to be the truth is reasonably burnt out on cooking and the environments I had experienced,” Des Jardins says. Gilmore, however, persuaded Des Jardins to hyperlink up with her for Elka.

“It was a refreshing form of commerce for me to be around somebody who truly had loads of enjoyable in the kitchen,” Des Jardins says. Elka represented a departure for Des Jardins, who had been in “enormous-severe French kitchens” up unless that time. By comparison, the kitchen at Elka was “no longer moderately so severe and regimented.”

National recognition got right here immediate for the restaurant: Elka found a space on Esquire’s checklist of most nice unusual restaurants in 1992. Gilmore gave Des Jardins the latitude to focus fully on cooking, so Des Jardins had no hand in the government initiatives that were share of Gilmore’s job. Observing from a distance, Des Jardins would wonder at how deftly Gilmore navigated the thorny politics of “a used Eastern corporation” as a unfamiliar lady. “She was always correct 100 % herself, which was admirable,” Des Jardins observes. “She was very out, and never truly made any excuses.”

The restaurant’s boldness attracted Elizabeth Falkner, who was working in pastry at Masa’s when Elka opened. Gilmore and Des Jardins gave Falkner carte blanche to retool the dessert menu. Such freedom resulted in fanciful desserts like “tiramisushi,” with rolls of cocoa roulade sponge cake jammed with marsala mascarpone filling. Gilmore nudged Falkner in extra artistic instructions, letting Falkner’s budding artistic impulses blossom.

“One time she got right here up to me and acknowledged, ‘ how folks gain chocolate-lined cherries?’” Falkner recalled. Gilmore puzzled why no person made the inverse, cherry-lined chocolate. “I used to be like, that can presumably also very properly be a appropriate quiz!” Falkner says. “She could presumably per chance inspire me correct by announcing stuff like that.”

Falkner would lastly apply Des Jardins to Rubicon in 1994, whereas Gilmore persisted with her namesake restaurant and opened one more, Liberté, that year. Gilmore’s efforts at Elka earned her a James Beard nomination in 1994. She closed every Elka and Liberté in 1995, though, and moved to Fresh York, coaxed there by the chance to be the government chef of Fresh york’s Kokachin. Guests claimed that Fresh York wasn’t easy for her. Gilmore returned to San Francisco soon after and opened Oodles, which she called an “Asian bistro” restaurant, in the summertime of 1998.

The restaurant flamed out after 18 months. Studies from 2000 counsel she was named as a suspect in a burglary that successfully shut down Oodles. (Details later in the last decade tag that she was arrested for burglary, fraud, and identity theft.) She withdrew from the public detect in the years after, though she didn’t disconnect from food entirely. A recordsdata yarn in 2011 specified that she labored as an trainer for Oakland’s Kitchen of Champions, instructing cooking to lower-earnings folks, many of whom were previously incarcerated.

Bask in others who were as soon as in Gilmore’s orbit, Falkner fell out of contact with her on this period. Regardless of came about to Elka? grew to alter right into a frequent refrain in the circles that Falkner ran in. Nonetheless she encountered Gilmore by probability on a flight to Los Angeles in the leisurely aughts, when Falkner was filming for High Chef Masters. Falkner was sitting in first class, Gilmore in the relieve. After most passengers had deplaned, Falkner walked relieve to the plane and chatted with Gilmore.

“I desire you to grab that I receive talked about you plenty, decades with assorted cooks that I’ve had about what you impressed me with the chocolate-lined cherries and cherry-lined chocolate,” Falkner remembers telling Gilmore. “I desire you to grab that I truly repeat that yarn to folks the entire time.”


A appropriate number of Gilmore’s visitors and outdated college coworkers command her sexuality wasn’t germane to her real work. “I knew she was homosexual, nonetheless it didn’t seem to receive one thing to attain with well-known of one thing, as some distance as I could presumably per chance gaze,” Jerry di Vecchio, the outdated long-established food editor of Sunset and longtime pal of Gilmore, says.

Downplaying Gilmore’s queerness, however, ignores the scope of her influence. Attributable to the openness of figures like Gilmore, San Francisco grew to alter into “the spot the assign it is advisable presumably per chance be out and respected, free to cook dinner previous some little, invisible bistro in the gayborhood, unconfined by purple ghettoes and dismay,” as the creator John Birdsall seen in a 2015 essay for the unfamiliar food journal Jarry.

Her sexuality was an licensed actuality, no longer a legitimate licensed responsibility. This could occasionally likely presumably also no longer seem particularly unusual for a metropolis like San Francisco, nonetheless her nationwide visibility meant that younger cooks some distance out of doors the Bay Home could presumably per chance see to her as a mannequin of unfamiliar feminine success. The remainder of The United States wasn’t like San Francisco, finally. In assorted formulation of the nation, a unfamiliar lady’s sexuality could presumably per chance be an obstacle in the kitchen. This was a reality Gilmore knew herself.

The chef Preeti Mistry, who moved to the Bay Home from Michigan in 1996, is one in all many unfamiliar cooks who admired Gilmore from afar, long sooner than Mistry entered the alternate. “I judge that you’re taking a see at a anguish the assign it’s like, properly, yeah, why is it that you haven’t heard about Elka Gilmore?” Mistry says. “How is it that Jeremiah Tower hasn’t, unless honest no longer too long ago, had a restaurant in two decades, nonetheless each person is conscious of his title?”

Mistry never even met Gilmore. To Mistry, though, Gilmore’s prominence has created an ecosystem the assign unfamiliar, feminine-figuring out cooks no longer must fight moderately as spirited for the standard courtesy of acknowledgment from the food establishment. “I will’t declare that, even supposing I never met her, or what receive you ever, or that her profession was eclipsed in a method through the public, that doesn’t originate a foundation or a basis for how the media and the dining group react to up-and-coming unfamiliar cooks and girls folk cooks,” Mistry says.

Gilmore’s queerness mattered — and restful issues this day — precisely because her work gave permission to assorted cooks who adopted. As extra time elapses since her loss of life, history could presumably also undergo in mind her as an advocate for girls folk in the kitchen who possessed a startlingly clear culinary imaginative and prescient. But any tribute to Gilmore’s work must acknowledge her queerness, too, a reality she lived with suppose conviction.

Mayukh Sen is a creator in Fresh York. He has obtained a James Beard Award for his food writing, and he teaches food journalism at Fresh York University. His first e book, on immigrant food in The United States, will be printed by W.W. Norton & Firm in 2021.

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