Booli Huerta began his career in gastronomy. 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 laid off from an office catering job, they opened a pickling and canning business called Fish and Bonez in Oakland.
Thanks to a recent menu expansion, Fish and Bonez is now known for its vegan cookies as much as its pickled red onions. He operates primarily in the restaurant space, hosting pop-ups and private events, which means the team is much smaller than the restaurants where Huerta trained. But having just three staff members allows for close worker-guest relationships that Huerta has never experienced in previous jobs, as well as a $25 hourly wage.
Safety and care are also essential parts of the culture that Huerta builds. “Taking care of myself means checking in with my staff,” they say. “If we’re feeling a little sad, we have a level of understanding with each other that maybe some days we don’t need to talk. And it feels good to be like, ‘Hey, thanks for a day of silent solitude.”
Lately, Huerta has been trying to draw on his technical French training to cook dishes inspired by his Mexican heritage. “I want to be that trans chef who can do all the great things that cis white chefs do, but bring a culture that is mine,” they say. Others have written about the symbolism of pickling and fermentation and its connection to transition. But for Huerta, the most immediate connection is in how transitedness shapes their emotional and professional practice, particularly in who and how they feed.
“A lot of my parents aren’t 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 award ruled out too much, Huerta says; they purposely set their prices 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, we take each other under our wings and pass under the wings of those who have gone before us, usually in the absence of family and governmental support. We need each other. And that sense of mutual support remains an essential part of the culture that Huerta and their fellow trans chefs strive to promote.
In Asheville, chef Silver Cousler is set to open Neng Jr.’s, the city’s first Filipino restaurant. Cousler’s trans identity played a major role in shaping their culinary vision; Neng Jr.’s is as much a trans restaurant as it is a Filipino restaurant. Like Justice, Cousler works to create a kitchen without the abuse they have suffered in others.
“Language in a kitchen is so violent and oppressive; he’s such a psychological motherfucker,” they say, recalling a job where they were regularly belittled and, after finally standing up for themselves, let go for no reason. “It was one of those classic kitchens where everyone drinks at work,” where no one is taken care of, and where the ethos is extremely misogynistic and toxic.