This chef used to leave his charm at the kitchen door. Now, he’s embracing it.

In 2014, the line to receive one of Justin Burke’s Mocha-Coconut or Key Lime Pop Tarts formed an hour before outside their Boston-area pop-up, and the pastries disappeared in less than that. But Burke didn’t plan to become a professional baker: he remembers waking up one morning to Boston Herald The article called him a pastry chef, and “just like that,” he says, “I was one.” Instead, the pop-up was conceived as an ongoing bake sale for his main wish: to be a father.

When Burke — now a full-time baker, recipe developer, and food writer — and her husband David started talking about having a family, they were struck by the cost. Having a child is expensive for anyone, but it can be even more so for same-sex couples. From start to finish, Burke says, the surrogacy process “cost us about $150,000.” The bake sale was conceived “instead of essentially asking for a GoFundMe,” he says, and in 2018, Burke’s dream came true with the birth of him and David’s son, Jasper. But Jasper’s arrival coincided with the end of Burke’s marriage, and his experience in his new, unexpected career in the restaurant kitchen began to reshape his ideas about his family and community.

For queer people, notions of family often transcend loneliness. Sometimes it arises out of necessity, when blood relatives are not accepting and queer people have to form new bonds. In its many forms, queer community creation challenges conventions about what a family might or should look like. There is no age-old blueprint for a queer family, so creating it is a work of discovery and imagination. In a 2018 story Burke wrote for Eater, Hey Described the need for support and connections He realized while working in restaurant kitchens, and faced challenges in these overly straight and male-dominated spaces. Homophobia and toxic masculinity colored his time in the kitchen, making it unbearable. Burke was reminded every day that while he was not taken seriously as a cook, his skills were undermined by constant harassment and challenges from the way he presented himself. As he navigated the work environment where he was an outsider, there was no support system. “I didn’t have a quirky community. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about anything, or anything, really,” he says. Within friend groups, the “we” Were gay friend. “

Burke left the industry in 2018, when Jasper was born. But as the story made waves, other queer cooks felt isolated in their experiences relating to his words, and people reached out to Burke to tell him how much his story meant to him. “I understand the chosen family now,” Burke says, looking back at that time in his life, before he had a community to lean on. “You find these people who relate to you—we give ourselves space to hang out, and talk about our crazy ideas.” These relationships play a deep role in the lives of many queer people: they make life complete, transforming experiences that may be alienating into sources of kinship and joy. Navigating predominately straight spaces without the support of a community – where queues are not acknowledged or given space to exist – can be a challenge. Burke’s time in the restaurant was shaped by doing so without support.

But not long after writing your essay, a community did Around Burke and his baby. By then, she had left the restaurant kitchen, and was married to David. “My life changed so much: I quit a career I loved because I wanted to be a stay-at-home dad. I’m a single parent now, like, what the fuck?” Eventually, they find a new and supportive relationship, and they become close with an old gay couple, Larry and Randy. “They knew, as a parent, what I was doing, but they also knew it” bizarre What was I doing parents? I had never realized how important it was to have a chosen family, or what it meant. It clicked for me. It was the first time in his life that Burke, who had been raised to attend a Baptist church in an Orthodox town, was surrounded by other queer people. Burke and her boyfriend bring Jasper to Larry and Randy’s house, where they teach him to swim. “This chosen family loves me and my son unconditionally, and seeing others show Jasper such care and love shows me how much he cares, and how rich his life is.”

It was not just other queer people who became a part of this web. “We live in a place where there are 14 houses, and everyone has children. They became an extension of our chosen family. We talk and we share, and our kids just get absorbed in this community. That’s how life should be,” he says. These neighbors become friends with Burke and look for Jasper. This family—friendship, neighbors, Burke’s boyfriend, her ex-husband, and her ex-husband’s boyfriend—is large and sprawling, not a family in the most literal sense. Together, they are raising a child. “I knew we could still be a family,” Burke says, referring to their past relationship and the challenge of raising their son together. “It doesn’t necessarily make us think about family. As long as respect and love and dedication are its foundation, it can be built however we want it to.”

There was enough stability for Burke to return to the food world in 2019, overseeing a bakery that was on the verge of closure and needed direction. Then, as everything was falling apart, the pandemic hit. Burke and David form a bubble between their two family units, agreeing to take as little risk as possible. Despite his caution, one day Jasper developed a fever. By the end of the week, everyone, including Burke, had tested positive for COVID-19. Burke lost his sense of taste and smell, and settled into a crushing list of symptoms for the long haul; A cookbook deal fell apart when Burke became ill, and the projects’ contracts fell apart. “It was really, really hard,” he says. When Burke’s energy was low, a rotating cast of neighbors looked after Jasper to check on him.

The connections Burke made during the pandemic—and everything he feared he wouldn’t get back when he fell ill His views on cooking changed. “I look at food differently. And I’m more intentional with what I’m cooking.” When Burke finally regained consciousness, he recounted his childhood meals as well as recipes he discovered through his new family. “How do I incorporate them and their stories into my work?” for inspiration, Burke turns to queer potlucks which started popping up in the 50s, Mainly organized by gay communities To connect and organize when other spaces did not welcome them. “People were making food out of their blood families that they no longer talk about, but that food is so important to them that it needs to be shared and passed on. When people ask what is weird food, I say, ‘It’s not a solid thing. It’s the makeup of many things. Like the queer community, it’s the spectrum.'”

Instead of being left at the kitchen door, it is now part of Burke’s cooking process. This change happened, in large part, after Burke’s move away from the professional kitchen. “Since becoming a parent and leaving the restaurant world, I’ve really learned more about myself as someone,” he says. “I am so much more appreciative of my strange identity and embracing it. I talk about it a lot and I really lean into it. I used to be like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be a gay chef.’ But I think there was pressure from these heterosexual, cisgender, male-run places to suppress my identity. He wants these cycles of separation to end, and it starts at home, with his child. “We can equip him with the ability to be strong and stand up for what’s right and not be shaken by any hatred, because that’s what he’s going to do,” Burke says. “It is our responsibility to give him the tools to be able to stand up for himself and his family.”

Compared to the way he once walked through a restaurant kitchen, Burke’s clarity and confidence are almost unrecognizable. “I was mean and cold. I just shut off all emotions and became the person people were afraid of because they couldn’t read me,” he wrote in his Eater essay. “Instead of changing the culture of the workplace, I contributed to its dysfunction.” Burke has not given up on the idea that the restaurant is, at its core, a place for “respite and restoration.” He used his distance from the restaurant to question how the industry treated him. And how failed others in their situation. “How can we create a space that welcomes anyone and everyone in a safe environment?” he asks. The question goes beyond him and his immediate community, to many kitchens. where queer people, people of color and women still do not feel safe and are not treated with respect.” How do we show that we can come from many different walks of life, But can we be there for each other?”

crush rush is a photojournalist based in South Carolina.

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