It’s Friday night in Los Angeles, and more than 80 people are shoulder-to-shoulder in a backyard in East Hollywood. Chef Jazz Ramirez had transported an industrial fryer in the back of their Kia Sportage to serve masa-battered chorizo corn dogs drizzled with avocado crema and salsa macha to hungry patrons, all gathered for a comedy fundraiser to support a friend’s gender-affirming surgery. A tattoo artist inscribes flash art onto attendees, including the word “slay” and a reclamation of the word “fag.” A drag king dances with a cut-out of Jeff Probst. It’s a scene of queer euphoria.
It’s a far cry from the commercial kitchens Ramirez has worked in, most recently as chef of Homage Brewing in Chinatown. Over the years, their identity has transformed alongside their sensual food, which is delicately balanced with herbs and Southern California Mexican influences. Ramirez shares that they didn’t feel accepted in the restaurant industry because they weren’t perceived by colleagues as feminine enough to be seen as nonthreatening or masculine enough to be seen as one of the boys. In February this year, they left their job to pursue a mix of pop-ups and private catering gigs.
“I’ve changed and evolved into a new identity that I’m finding myself more secure in, but with that came me feeling even more uncomfortable in my work environment, because for other folks, it was confusing, or made them uncomfortable. And it didn’t make me feel good in my workplace anymore,” says Ramirez.
Ramirez is not alone in feeling constrained by traditionally cis male-dominated kitchens that often live up to masculine stereotypes, unwelcoming to anyone who doesn’t fit in. Anchored by the city’s strong food scene, tight-knit queer community, and access to nightlife events and organizers who support these chefs, a new wave of queer and queer-run pop-ups have flourished in LA, accelerated by the return to in-person events. Unlike traditional restaurants, these can be spaces built around values like affordability and social accessibility and using food and design to embody queer sensibilities.
The queer pop-ups thriving in Los Angeles right now are expansive and varied. At the Eagle Rock home called Muddy Heaven, chef Kylie Kiyomi Obermeier lives and hosts events. Obermeier is a force, participating in the Dyke Soccer league and selling her food under the moniker Kitchen Sink at Queer Mall, an event that takes place in the back of Hippo in Highland Park. Obermeier’s cooking is deeply influenced by her Japanese American mother and by the herbs exploding in her backyard. She makes $5 onigiri topped with daikon radish butterflies and native plants and crafts cakes dripping in seasonal jams and flowers foraged uniquely for each recipient, starting at $100.
“The reason my project is called Kitchen Sink is because I have a hard time narrowing it down to one thing,” Obermeier says. “I like my food to be about connecting to the Earth and [our] surroundings.”
These queer pop-up owners build their businesses around pillars like sliding-scale pricing, never turning someone away for lack of funds, and paying workers a fair living wage. Chef Kat Williams of the Gro House, a Black, trans, Jamaican-owned pop-up that serves up signature dishes such as honey jerk wings and fried plantains, says he was previously the recipient of mutual aid, an often community-driven exchange of resources. With that experience in mind, he has organized fundraisers and free groceries for the Black LGBTQIA+ community in LA.
“Instead of being disgruntled, I go and I plan a pop-up or I promote my business. Instead of being like, ‘Fuck the restaurant industry,’ I’m trying to be out here improving it and creating visibility in the kitchen,” says Williams, who has experienced disrespect and retaliation in commercial kitchens as a Black trans person.
Running a pop-up is laborious, as any chef who’s had to pack their entire kitchen in the back of an Uber or prep a meal in an apartment kitchen will tell you. Queer and nonwhite chefs, who often lack access to funding for these projects and may not have as stable a safety net, may also have a harder time making them work or be unable to take a risk on starting a pop-up at all.
Although referrals and word-of-mouth have propelled many of these pop-ups, chefs also spend a lot of time focused on logistics and self-promotion without the consistency of permanent spaces. Many of these chefs rely on private catering gigs and day jobs to fuel their passion project.
Chef Sarah Alikhan founded pop-up Biri Bibi in Berlin in 2017, and now finds a home for the project between Los Angeles and Germany. Alikhan dreams up menus that feature Hachiya persimmon chutney, paratha tacos, and butternut and banana squash sabzi with prices ranging from $5 to $15 per dish for one night at a time, popping up at Brain Dead Studios in Fairfax and Queer Mango events. They also work at Pine & Crane, where they’ve found support from fellow staffers and flexibility in working part time.
“It kind of gives me a scope on what it would potentially be like if I opened up a restaurant one day. A lot of my co-workers are super supportive so I’ve been able to hire some folks to help with my pop-up, or they come in and support, which is so lovely to feel. Sometimes my work lets me borrow third pans or catering things that I might need that I can’t afford, or that I don’t have yet. That is super sweet,” says Alikhan.
Chef Chuchy Huizar has been at work on their pop-up FeedthePeople.losangeles since she was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, where they sold food to nourish the community and support her own culinary education. Their recipes are the amalgamation of six generations of Latina food traditions rooted in Los Angeles, plant-based vegan principles, and ancestral ingredients that produce dishes such as mushroom asada tacos and jackfruit carnitas.
Huizar hopes to one day run their own brick-and-mortar space that provides supportive programming and learning opportunities for the queer community. “I always circle back to a cafe situate type, but more like a food library for the people, a place where you can come learn different cooking techniques, different cultural foods, obviously different queer and trans chefs from different cultures teaching you those foods, and a hands-on kitchen space where you can not only like learn the food, but learn your own food journey,” she says.
Queer pop-ups really can be a pipeline to physical restaurants, as exemplified by thriving sapphic wine bar the Ruby Fruit in Silver Lake, which popped up as Big Al’s prior to its current space, or former Arts District restaurant Detroit Vesey’s, which is now doing a residency at Redline in Downtown LA while fundraising and applying for grants for a new and improved space.
It was at a queer pop-up that chef Sammy Schwartz of Slutty Sammys was able to connect with Mara Herbkersman and Emily Bielagus of the Ruby Fruit. Schwartz began slinging their signature cheesy, melty sandwiches, which sell for $10 to $15 on a sliding scale, next to the Ruby Fruit’s beloved hot dog.
Schwartz’s story is relatively uncommon in the world of queer chefs in that the majority of their food experience has been within the bounds of queer community. Slutty Sammys first opened shop out of a cooler on the shores of New York’s Riis Beach and has since transformed to an in-demand pop-up at queer nights including Divorce Party, Girls, Gays, and Theys, and Stud Country. After making a connection with the Ruby Fruit, Schwartz was invited to work in the kitchen, though they hadn’t formally worked the line before.
“[Mara and Emily] were like, ‘Oh, do you want to come cook in this kitchen?’ I was so intimidated. I was like, ‘I’ve never cooked, I don’t know where the broiler is ... I don’t know anything,’” says Schwartz. “And they’re like ‘Honey, you’re hustling. You’re scrappy as hell ... we’re going to teach you.’”
With more queer spaces emerging in Los Angeles, perhaps Schwartz’s story won’t be an anomaly, but the norm. Queer pop-ups grow awareness for their chefs, away from the burdens of full-time gigs, in a playful manner that prioritizes operators’ values. Safe kitchens and workplaces for these chefs could lead to more permanent projects, and, eventually, more places for the community to find sustenance and joy.
“The ultimate thing is I want there to be so many nurturing spaces for queer people to work,” says Schwartz. “Maybe there is a little birthing moment right now of queer restaurants and queer pop-ups.”
This story has been updated.
Rax Will is a James Beard Foundation Award-nominated writer living in Los Angeles with stories in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Eater, and Punch. They are at work on a book on queer food.