Booli Huerta began their career in fine dining. As a young chef they trained at Le Cordon Bleu and spent the first few years after that working grueling hours on the line. Then in July 2020, after being furloughed from a job in office catering, they opened a pickling and preserve company called Fish and Bonez in Oakland.
Thanks to a recent menu expansion, Fish and Bonez is now known for its vegan biscuits as much as its pickled red onions. It functions primarily in the catering space, doing pop-ups and private events, which means the team is much smaller than the restaurants where Huerta was trained. But having only three staff members allows for the kinds of close relationships between workers and guests that Huerta never experienced at previous jobs—along with a $25 hourly wage.
Safety and care are also vital components of the culture Huerta is building. “Care for me means checking in with my staff,” they say. “If we’re feeling a little bit sad, we have a level of understanding with each other that maybe some days we don’t have to talk. And it feels good to be like, ‘Hey, thanks for just a silent solitude day.’”
Lately, Huerta has been working to build on their French technique training to cook food inspired by their Mexican heritage. “I want to be that trans chef that can do all of the great things cis white chefs are doing, but bring a culture that is mine,” they say. Others have written about the symbolism of pickling and fermentation and how it relates to transition. But for Huerta the more immediate connection is in how transness shapes their emotional and professional practice, especially in who and how they feed.
“A lot of my folks are not trying to spend $300 on a meal,” Huerta says, alluding to the fact that trans people have statistically lower incomes and employment rates than cis people. The fine dining price point has excluded too many, Huerta says; they set their prices intentionally low so that everyone can benefit from their culinary training.
Trans people often have to rely on other trans people to survive. We support each other, take each other under our wings, and step under the wings of those who’ve come before, usually in the absence of familial and governmental support. We need each other. And that sense of mutual support remains a vital part of the culture that Huerta and their fellow trans chefs are working to foster.
In Asheville, chef Silver Cousler is preparing to open Neng Jr.’s, the city’s first Filipinx restaurant. Cousler’s trans identity has played a major role in shaping their culinary vision; Neng Jr.’s is as much a trans restaurant as it is a Filipinx restaurant. Like Justice, Cousler is working to create a kitchen absent the abuse they experienced in others.
“The language in a kitchen, it’s so violent and oppressive; it’s such a psychological mindfuck,” they say, recalling a job where they were routinely belittled and, after finally standing up for themself, let go without cause. “It was one of those classic kitchens where everyone’s drinking on the job,” where no one is cared for, and the ethos is extremely misogynistic and toxic.