I look up from my cutting board and see dozens of faces in small zoom squares, all slicing onions. “Make sure you put your fingers in it!” I say, always my first grade when teaching someone how to use a knife safely.
I used to avoid cooking demonstrations because everything about them made me anxious. I’ve worked on 15 cookbooks in as many years, which means I’ve spent a lot of time not only writing cookbooks, but popularizing them. Hence the dreaded cooking demo. Now don’t get me wrong – it’s a tremendous privilege to be published, let alone having someone show up to see you talk about your book. But the skills required to create a cookbook are very different from those required to perform, and in-person demonstrations have always felt like a performance to me. I was sweating all the time.
But if Just Julia, My last cookbook came out for the one year anniversary of COVID-19, all advertising switched to the internet. The pandemic meant I was able to demo via Zoom from my kitchen, which is where I feel most comfortable. It may sound like a paradox, but with no one actually In my kitchen (with the exception of my wife Grace and our pets) I was able to embody the experience of being part of a community more than ever before.
Cooking on Zoom has had a profound impact on how I see and experience queer visibility. There’s no stage, and I don’t feel as exposed as I used to when I’ve climbed onto a podium to talk about my books. Everyone who takes part not only has to watch, but can also cook with them. I used to hold up every book I’d recently published and talk about the importance of being active and loudly queer. It felt like such an important message, but one that was difficult to get across at times. Now I’m signing up from home with my own family and I’m just a queer person who can show up close how they live. And because so many of the people who cook with me on Zoom are also queer, I not only see my own experience mirrored back to me; I see so many ways that queerness and queer families in particular can look like.
When my screen is in gallery view and I look at each person who has joined me, I am reminded that there is no single way to be gay.
I now teach every Sunday afternoon. Many people come and cook with me; some just watch. Either way, everyone leaves the restaurant not only knowing how to make things like corn and potato soup or Julia’s Caesar (couldn’t resist!), but with ideas for reusing leftovers and overcoming kitchen challenges when they occur. It’s the most unfiltered thing I’ve ever experienced in my work. I keep dropping things and regularly forgetting to add an ingredient. But in those moments, I don’t panic – I’m just explaining how to deal with missteps in cooking.
As my earlier rigidity has given way to a more relaxed and personal approach, I feel comfortable. And when I’m comfortable, I feel my weirdness more than ever. My ease in speaking through variations and substitutions isn’t just because I’m a seasoned home cook or a published author. That’s because I cook queer all the time: I keep wondering why we think there’s only one way to do this or that – and if you really know that, there are so many ways to do anything. I firmly believe that there is no way better or To the right.
This approach isn’t just flexible—it’s queer. And while I’ve always brought that perspective to my work, the time and space that an online course gives me allows me to explore deeper. It also allows me to ask everyone in the class for their opinions and perspectives. I don’t have to be the Authority. Stepping away from publishing in favor of teaching online for a living feels like trading exclusivity for community. Where I used to operate with a scarcity mentality, as if I was in constant competition with other authors and writers, I now feel a deep sense of joy in all the people I can share with.
Every week I welcome complete strangers into my house. Grace often walks in the background to get a snack or to wave to my mother-in-law, who often joins us from her native Virginia kitchen. My parents always log in. My mom holds up a piece of paper that says, “Preheat the oven!” (reminds me to do that one thing I always forget). You and my father will intervene and add color to my stories. Here I welcome the crowd to my real Live to show them not only the food I love, but the place it comes from and the people I cook it for.
One of my favorite moments of every class is right at the beginning when I ask Haley Scarpino, a home cook and small business owner I met on Instagram and who moderates the chat in my classes, to introduce herself. Every Sunday when she says, “I’m Haley and I live in Des Moines with my wife, Maggie,” I smile. I like to think that our back-to-back performances send a bat signal to every other queer person in the class: You are not alone here! And to all non-queer people, it sends a more subtle message: So you’re welcome here, but you’re not the standard. The sense of pride that these introductions always give me lingers as I cook and share, teaching couples, friends, families and solo chefs how to prepare simple yet special dishes like stewed chicken, crunchy roast potatoes and sautéed spinach with chickpeas.
I’ve learned that the sense of connection I feel when Haley and I introduce ourselves resonates with others, too. Gunnar Bednarz, a 14-year-old amateur chef who came out to his family two years ago, recently told me that this “representation is nice to look at”. In March, we were joined by another home cook named Kathryn Covarrubias (we made hibiscus margaritas, black bean enchiladas, and chocolate cinnamon cookies). “I took your class and then my kids came over for dinner, including my daughter and her friend,” she told me. “It just felt so right. Actually seeing your home and life helps me envision a wonderful future for my two children.” The sense of connection is mutual. Almost like a queer potluck, we show ourselves not only with food, but also with our full and unfiltered selves.
Sasha Friedman and Kathryn Hamoudah had taken a few courses before deciding to sign up for one the week before their wedding (two types of meatballs were on the menu, plus white pizza-style kale and the simplest tiramisu). “We decided it was the perfect way to ground ourselves, connect, and enjoy something that just makes us happy,” Sasha told me.
If you had asked me a year ago if I could have built a career by sharing from my kitchen every week, I would have told you not to hold your breath. But now I realize it makes so much sense. I’m not cooking on a book tour away from home – the place where all my recipes come from – or Grace or our pets. I don’t put on an ironed shirt and try to get someone to buy my book. I’m just being myself, shirt open, doing what I love to do: making some nice food for me and my spouse.
Sometimes, when we’ve all finished cooking and the class draws to a close, Grace will come by and hold our cat up and pretend to wave goodbye. Sharing this moment feels like pulling back the curtain on our love while simultaneously watching the same thing happen in dozens of other kitchens. Here’s a grid of friendly faces on my screen, all preparing food for the people they love.
Hungry for more pride? Check out these stories from our Food Is Queer pack:
Originally appeared on Bon Appétit