In the Spotlight of World Pride, Serving Stories of Freedom
Text by Lukas Volger
Photos by Steve Viksjo
Liberation is a theme that StoryCourse has been exploring since they first began creating their culinary-theatrical experiences. There was their first Passover Seder in 2017, set inside a bedouin tent they constructed, that reimagined the ceremonial story of exodus as a modern immersive theatrical experience, in four scenes paired with four courses. Through that Passover Seder, they realized that the liberation journey at its core could be applied as something of a template to many other personal stories. They decided to seek out immigrant and refugee stories of chefs, eventually collaborating with South Korean Chef Jae Jung for How Do You Hug a Tiger? and Iranian chef Behzad Jamshidi for Omid to translate their journeys into similar sensory experiences that combine storytelling and food.
And now, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, they delve into the story of Pride, defined as it is by the ongoing quest for liberation. But unlike previous StoryCourse events, it didn’t feel right for PrideTable to focus on just a single chef’s story. “Since the ‘history’ is very much alive and expansive, we didn’t want the lens to feel too narrow,” says Adam Kantor, PrideTable’s executive producer, director, and writer. “It became clear that this experience actually had to include multiple stories, and multiple chefs, every single night.”
To begin creating PrideTable, Adam first aquainted himself with New York City’s burgeoning queer food scene. He asked himself the questions, “What is queer food?” and “Whose lives are devoted to asking this question?” thus discovering Jarry and the Brooklyn-based party series Queer Soup Night. He forged relationships with people who’ve since become a few of PrideTable’s key collaborators, including Liz Alpern (of Queer Soup Night), Steve Viksjo (Creative Director of Jarry), and Ora Wise, the prominent organizer and activist who encouraged Adam to lean into the social-political potential of what PrideTable could be.
Working piece by piece, he started collecting the pieces of his vision for PrideTable as “a diverse and intergenerational patchwork of stories,” bringing it slowly into focus. He met Chef Charlie Monlouis-Anderle over dinner at The Eddy, a restaurant in New York’s East Village helmed by the queer chef Jeremy Salamon. There, the beauty and clarity of how Charlie described their nonbinary gender identity, and how it translates into their cooking, struck Adam as perfectly suited for the sensory experience StoryCourse was creating. Then, tipped off by his StoryCourse collaborator Brian Bordainick, he came across Chef Dima King in a 2018 New York Times story about refugees in America acclimating to the ritual of Thanksgiving. Adam met with him over Dima’s lunch break one afternoon (Dima is a line cook at Temple Court, a Tom Collichio restaurant), where he told Adam of fleeing St. Petersberg with his partner, due to the increasing hostility aimed at LGBTQ+ people, and his ever-evolving relationship with the borscht he’s been eating all his life. Then he encountered Chef Woldy Reyes at the Brooklyn party series Queer Soup Night, where Adam first tasted his prize-winning chili; later, Woldy shared the moving story of how coming out, for him, is tangled with growing up hearing impaired, and how the Filipino food of his family would occasionally bring him unwanted attention during a time he only ever wanted to be invisible.
Adam also wanted to incorporate some of the lived experience of the Stonewall Rebellion, and he began his research by reading Eric Marcus’s canonical book Making Gay History (and its eponymous podcast). Through Eric, he met Chef Martin Boyce, a native New Yorker and gifted storyteller. His captivating first-hand accounts of growing up on the streets of Manhattan in the 50s and 60s, of being a “scare drag queen,” and of fighting in the Stonewall riots brought an authoritative, unforgettable voice to the PrideTable experience.
As the chefs’ stories were taking shape, Adam simultaneously explored ways to deepen PrideTable’s impact and make the project even more meaningful. “How could this experience give back to the community, and also provide a platform of sorts, and empower others to be heard in ways they might not normally get to be heard?” he asked. In this spirit he connected with the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), the after-school program that for 40 years has been an important safe place in New York City for LGBTQ+ young people. Working with acting coach (and PrideTable storyteller) Yael Elishiva, and events management consultant (and PrideTable production and front-of-house mangager) Derek Lauck, they got involved in HMI programming throughout the spring by leading workshops focusing on theater, cooking, and hospitality.
Intending to honor the young people at HMI by devoting one of PrideTable’s “chapters” to their stories, Adam spent several days doing interviews. When he got to know trans chef Mellissa Cashmere Santiago and learned of her passion for food—how cooking is a way of sharing who she is, with people she cares for—the chapter naturally fell into place by focusing on her story. “She’s such a dynamic personality and a true leader amongst the HMI community,” Adam said. “It made perfect sense to empower her, and for her to be the centerpiece of the story about HMI.” As a featured PrideTable chef, this is also Chef Mellissa’s first professional cooking job.
For Chef Mellissa, it’s been an unforgettable experience. “This has been nothing but fun, laughter, and great energy,” she said. She was drawn to PrideTable for the opportunity to cook and to collaborate with a wonderful group of people, but being able to tell her story through her cooking was what excited her most. “When you taste my food you really taste a piece of me,” she says. For HMI community member Rafael “Nacho” Hernandez, an actor-in-training at BMCC and a PrideTable storyteller, it presented an exciting opportunity to garner theater experience. “It’s something I can connect with,” he said. “I feel I have more confidence in myself, knowing that it’s okay to push myself as an actor, a singer, a dancer.” For both Mellissa and Nacho, PrideTable has been especially valuable for being a medium to share the types of stories that they relate to, and for being models who can help others know that they’re not alone in their experiences.
The partnership with HMI involves training and employing many HMI young people: as storytellers—the actors who bring the chefs’ narratives to life—as well as Chef Mellissa, plus other HMI young people who’ve been trained and employed to provide front-of-house service through the run of PrideTable. In this way, PrideTable formally supports two HMI’s programmatic tracks, Workforce Development and Arts & Culture, making it a partnership that’s exactly what HMI aims to provide for its young people. “There are countless communities and areas of interest that LGBTQ+ youth don’t know of yet because they haven’t been exposed to them,” says Gregory Jones, Chief Engagement Officer at HMI. “Partnerships like this open up an entire world of possibilities for our young people to explore, and we want to encourage that every step of the way.” To round out their partnership, StoryCourse is donating all proceeds from the run of PrideTable
Through the spring and early summer, Adam worked closely with the chefs to craft their stories into scripts and fine-tune the dishes that would be the culinary aspects of the experience. He began casting the show, and set to work with his production team to bring PrideTable to life. Meanwhile, he and Yael led acting workshops at HMI; Chefs Charlie, Woldy, and Mellissa led culinary workshops with the HMI young people; and Production and Front-of-House Manager Derek Lauck began training for front-of-house service, often working out of the Food Arts Center in midtown Manhattan, an industrial kitchen and mission-driven culinary center.
Every step of the way, his intention has been to trace the stories of community uplift, and of self actualization and acceptance, that continue to make Pride a vital event every year. The PrideTable stories illustrate how far queer people have come, and how much further there is to go in order to make more spaces more free—for more people.
“I think we’ve landed on something that’s quite deep, moving, often funny, eye-opening, and perspective-shifting,” says Adam. “And—thanks to the enormous talents of these chefs—really delicious, too.” ///
The Chefs of PrideTable
Chef & Doula
Carmel Valley, CA to Brooklyn, NY
PrideTable Chapter One: Charlie’s Story
Oysters and Their Nectar
Coconut-Pickled Shallot, Rose, and Tulsi
“I give myself permission every day to transform. To venture deeper into the unknown. To let go of the urge to control metamorphosis in my body.”
Hailing from Carmel Valley, California, and with family ties to Martinique, Charlie uses food to create lucid, multi-sensory, food-centered events that function as a medium for exploring identity and sovereignty. In addition, Charlie is also a doula, providing emotional and physical support and advocacy to birthing persons during pregnancy, labor, and immediate postpartum. In all of Charlie’s work, they seek to empower, nourish, and protect while engaging in communal, interpersonal care.
St. Petersberg, Russia to New York City
PrideTable Chapter Two: Dima’s Story
Smoked Brisket, Beets, Cabbage, Potatoes, Beef Broth, Sour Cream
“I didn’t know the terms or definitions around sexuality, but I always understood that I liked men. As I got older, I knew…. But I kept my privacy.”
Madonna maven and borscht master, Dima is a line cook at Temple Court, a Tom Collicchio restaurant in New York City’s Financial District. In Russia, he earned degrees in landscape and law, but after coming to the United States, fleeing the escalating hostility inflicted on LGBTQ+ citizens by the Russian state, he connected with the nonprofit Emma’s Torch, where he began working towards his true passion: food.
Chef & Caterer
Los Angeles, CA to Brooklyn, NY
PrideTable Chapter Three: Woldy’s Story
“Seeking and Hiding” Kaldereta Kambing
Braised Goat, Roasted Poblano Peppers, Ginger, Goat Cheese, Rice Paper Cracker
“Being different from the normal world has always been a part of me. By the time I understood what a hearing disability was I also knew I was different in another way.”
The son of Filipino immigrants, Woldy grew up alongisde his deaf, identical-twin brother, using his own limited hearing as a way of hiding himself (and his gay identity) from the world. But with college he overcame his fears and moved to New York City to begin a career in fashion. Six years later, he pursued food, his passion, by starting the boutique catering company Woldy Kusina. He’s currently exploring and modernizing his approach to FIlipono cuisine, and opening his first brick-and-mortar establishment DOMINGA, named after his grandmother.
@woldykusina / @domingabrooklyn
Mellissa Cashmere Santiago
Chef & Peer Advisor at HMI
New York City Native
PrideTable Chapter Four: Mellissa’s Story
House-Spiced “Voguing” Chicken Wings
“Cooking is an act of creation. You’re taking something that didn’t exist before and making it come into existence. You carry a piece of yourself into it.”
One reason Chef Melissa was excited to participate in PrideTable was the opportunity to tell her story through her cooking, because food is integral to who she is: “When you eat my food,” she says, “you feel who I am.” The experience has even sparked an interest in cooking professionally. Melissa is proud to be using her story and her voice to uplift others. It’s part of her ongoing effort to make all spaces safer and more affirming for LGBTQ+ youth.
Stonewall Veteran & Restaurateur
New York City Native
PrideTable Chapter Five: Martin’s Story
Stonewall “Broken Glass” Pudding and “Rubble”
Crème Caramel, Seasonal Greenmarket Fruits
“The thing that Stonewall changed is that our individual Pride reached a consensus—and now we had a group Pride.”
Martin was there, fifty years ago, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn for the last time. And since then, he’s spent his life asserting his right to live openly, helping the campaign to memorialize the Stonewall Rebellion and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community. He went on to own Everybody’s Restaurant, which was open through the 1980s, and aptly named for its goal of bringing everyone together.