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A photo-illustration of Elka Gilmore: a framed portrait of the chef surrounded by flowers, with a rainbow color motif

The Queer Legacy of Elka Gilmore

The chef, who died last year, was one of San Francisco’s culinary stars in the 1990s. She created a space for the city’s queer women to thrive in the kitchen.

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Elka Gilmore’s career began with a lie.

The chef was just 11 when she hustled her way to a dishwashing gig at a French restaurant in Austin, Texas. Pretending to be far older, she fooled her bosses, even though she had to stand on a milk crate to reach the dishes. Within three months, she was working the line, balancing the job with school.

It was the early 1970s, and Gilmore was trying to save enough money to flee from home. She ran away at 16 to live with her grandmother in Madison, Wisconsin. A kitchen prodigy, she bounced from prep cook to chef at a restaurant called L’Etoile after the head chef quit, staying at the restaurant until she was 18. She was peripatetic over the next two decades, working in Boston, New York, Cotignac in France, and Los Angeles.

It was in San Francisco, however, where Gilmore became a star in no uncertain terms. She made her biggest splash with Elka, a Franco-Japanese restaurant she opened with Traci Des Jardins in 1991 in Japantown. Elka was a dazzling showcase for both women’s artistry, with dishes like hunks of ahi tuna with miso eggplant smeared with tomato-ginger jam. She followed her namesake restaurant with the short-lived Liberté and Oodles before receding from the limelight in the aughts.

Gilmore, who died in San Francisco last July at 59 after a flurry of health problems, became one of Bay Area dining’s most recognizable names in the 1990s. She found success while being open about her queerness and championing fellow queer, female culinary voices. Gilmore had been out since she was 12, when she had her first lesbian relationship. “I’m a proponent of the concept that it’s tremendously helpful to the world for gay people to be out,” she told the journalist John G. Watson of Out in April 1995. “I’ve lived my life that way for the past 22 years or so, a significant part of my life.”

With her restaurant Elka, she assembled an indisputably skilled cadre of queer female chefs, with Des Jardins as her chef de cuisine and Elizabeth Falkner as her pastry chef. Both Des Jardins and Falkner went on to become celebrities in their own right — Des Jardins with San Francisco’s Jardinière, Falkner with the city’s Citizen Cake and Orson.

Gilmore recognized raw talent. With careful intention, she helped genius thrive. She mentored younger queer chefs, encouraging them to push boundaries with their cooking. This private work had public impact. To observers of Bay Area dining, it seemed as if a queer culinary oasis sprouted overnight under Gilmore’s watch.

“That team that she put together — it seemed to be the birth of a faction, and the faction was really sharp, really talented lesbian chefs,” Maria Binchet, a veteran food writer who reviewed the restaurant for Gourmet, says of Gilmore. “All of a sudden, there was this new flank that was gaining momentum, independent of the typically male-dominated chef’s world.”

The Bay Area was no stranger to queer chefs prior to Gilmore’s arrival, though visibility skewed disproportionately toward men. Look at Jeremiah Tower, the gay man who built an image oozing with sensuality as he rose to prominence at Chez Panisse in the 1970s and cemented his celebrity with the restaurant Stars the decade after. The chef Gary Danko, too, made a name for himself as the chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. Far fewer people know of Gilmore, though. Tower and Danko, after all, are men, which guarantees certain privileges — say, a surer shot at longevity in American cultural memory.

The pastry chef Dana Farkas moved to the Bay Area with Gilmore after working with her in Los Angeles and served as the pastry chef at Elka before Falkner. “For sure, Elka was completely confident in her queerness, I will say very proud,” Farkas says. She notes that, apart from Gilmore, the high-profile female chefs in the Bay Area of that era included names like Joyce Goldstein, Nancy Oakes, Cindy Pawlcyn, Judy Rodgers, Barbara Tropp, and Alice Waters. Meanwhile, openly queer female chefs like Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis of San Francisco’s Sol Y Luna tended to generate less press. Gilmore’s national fame set her apart.

“I think Elka was a pioneer in many ways,” Farkas says.

In 1981, before she came to California, Gilmore worked for six months as an apprentice at Lou Callen Inn, a restaurant in the south of France. There, a “bully” executive chef made her fearful about acceptance. “Then the dining room staff came in,” she later told Out, “and they turned out to be all gay women — it was just too wild.” She’d found a queer sanctuary.

Conversations with nearly a dozen of Gilmore’s former coworkers reveal that Gilmore fostered a similarly welcoming environment in her own kitchen at Elka, situated in Japantown’s Miyako Hotel (now Hotel Kabuki), which, at the time, was owned by the Kintetsu Enterprise Company of America, a subsidiary of the Japanese corporation Kintetsu Group Holdings. A handful of Gilmore’s coworkers there mention a roughly even split between men and women at the restaurant, a rarity for the era. During her time in the industry, Gilmore became a fierce advocate for women in the kitchen, and a founding member of the non profit organization Women Chefs & Restaurateurs.

Gilmore’s path to renown, however, was riddled with complications. When Farkas and Gilmore moved to the Bay Area in 1990, both went out of their way to find fellow lesbian chefs. San Francisco, after all, was a queer haven. They had some trouble, though. “There was not a lot of marketing being done promoting queer women in kitchens,” Farkas says of that era.

Still, Gilmore had no shame about her queer identity. She fought for attention. “Elka was not afraid to say the words, to have that conversation or to just be okay with letting people figure it out, and that was usually sooner than later,” Farkas remembers. This lack of apology could turn powerful people against her. “I witnessed several owners of businesses flinch once they figured out who Elka was as an out gay woman,” Farkas says. “Attitudes suddenly changed, generally not for the good or in her favor.”

Gilmore didn’t let such setbacks deter her, though. She kept searching for a stage where her talents could shine without filter. Gilmore had learned how to survive trying situations early on. Her childhood wasn’t easy, Farkas notes. “Elka created a family environment in her kitchens, I believe due to a lack of her own personal family,” says Farkas.

Traci Des Jardins first learned of Gilmore back in 1983, when both women were working in Los Angeles. In those years, Gilmore had already established herself as “someone to kind of look up to,” in Des Jardins’s words. It wasn’t until they both moved to the Bay Area, though, that Gilmore and Des Jardins partnered for Elka.

Des Jardins was all but ready to take a sabbatical from the restaurant industry by 1991, having helped open Aqua in San Francisco. She’d worked almost exclusively for men throughout her time in the industry. “I was honestly pretty burnt out on cooking and the environments I had experienced,” Des Jardins says. Gilmore, however, persuaded Des Jardins to link up with her for Elka.

“It was a refreshing sort of change for me to be around somebody who really had a lot of fun in the kitchen,” Des Jardins says. Elka represented a departure for Des Jardins, who had been in “super-serious French kitchens” up until that point. By comparison, the kitchen at Elka was “not quite so serious and regimented.”

National recognition came quickly for the restaurant: Elka found a spot on Esquire’s list of best new restaurants in 1992. Gilmore gave Des Jardins the latitude to focus solely on cooking, so Des Jardins had no hand in the administrative tasks that were part of Gilmore’s job. Watching from a distance, Des Jardins would marvel at how deftly Gilmore navigated the thorny politics of “a traditional Japanese corporation” as a queer woman. “She was always just 100 percent herself, which was admirable,” Des Jardins observes. “She was very out, and never really made any excuses.”

The restaurant’s boldness attracted Elizabeth Falkner, who was working in pastry at Masa’s when Elka opened. Gilmore and Des Jardins gave Falkner carte blanche to retool the dessert menu. Such freedom resulted in fanciful desserts like “tiramisushi,” with rolls of cocoa roulade sponge cake jammed with marsala mascarpone filling. Gilmore nudged Falkner in more inventive directions, letting Falkner’s budding creative impulses blossom.

“One time she came up to me and said, ‘You know how people make chocolate-covered cherries?’” Falkner recalled. Gilmore wondered why no one made the inverse, cherry-covered chocolate. “I was like, that is a good question!” Falkner says. “She could inspire me just by saying stuff like that.”

Falkner would eventually follow Des Jardins to Rubicon in 1994, while Gilmore continued with her namesake restaurant and opened another, Liberté, that year. Gilmore’s efforts at Elka earned her a James Beard nomination in 1994. She closed both Elka and Liberté in 1995, though, and moved to New York, coaxed there by the opportunity to be the executive chef of Manhattan’s Kokachin. Friends claimed that New York wasn’t easy for her. Gilmore returned to San Francisco soon after and opened Oodles, which she called an “Asian bistro” restaurant, in the summer of 1998.

The restaurant flamed out after 18 months. Reports from 2000 suggest she was named as a suspect in a burglary that effectively shut down Oodles. (Records later in the decade indicate that she was arrested for burglary, fraud, and identity theft.) She withdrew from the public eye in the years after, though she didn’t disconnect from food entirely. A news story in 2011 specified that she worked as an instructor for Oakland’s Kitchen of Champions, teaching cooking to lower-income individuals, many of whom were formerly incarcerated.

Like others who were once in Gilmore’s orbit, Falkner fell out of touch with her in this period. Whatever happened to Elka? became a common refrain in the circles that Falkner ran in. But she encountered Gilmore by chance on a flight to Los Angeles in the late aughts, when Falkner was filming for Top Chef Masters. Falkner was sitting in first class, Gilmore in the back. After most passengers had deplaned, Falkner walked back to the plane and chatted with Gilmore.

“I want you to know that I have talked about you many, many years with different cooks that I’ve had about what you inspired me with the chocolate-covered cherries and cherry-covered chocolate,” Falkner remembers telling Gilmore. “I want you to know that I actually repeat that story to people all the time.”

A good number of Gilmore’s friends and former coworkers say her sexuality wasn’t germane to her actual work. “I knew she was gay, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with much of anything, as far as I could see,” Jerry di Vecchio, the former food editor of Sunset and longtime friend of Gilmore, says.

Downplaying Gilmore’s queerness, however, ignores the scope of her influence. Thanks to the openness of figures like Gilmore, San Francisco became “the place where you could be out and respected, free to cook beyond some cramped, invisible bistro in the gayborhood, unconfined by pink ghettoes and fear,” as the writer John Birdsall observed in a 2015 essay for the queer food journal Jarry.

Her sexuality was an accepted reality, not a professional liability. This may not seem particularly novel for a city like San Francisco, but her national visibility meant that younger chefs far outside the Bay Area could look to her as a model of queer female success. The rest of America wasn’t like San Francisco, after all. In other parts of the country, a queer woman’s sexuality could be an impediment in the kitchen. This was a truth Gilmore knew herself.

The chef Preeti Mistry, who moved to the Bay Area from Michigan in 1996, is one of many queer chefs who admired Gilmore from afar, long before Mistry entered the industry. “I think that you’re looking at a situation where it’s like, well, yeah, why is it that you haven’t heard about Elka Gilmore?” Mistry says. “How is it that Jeremiah Tower hasn’t, until recently, had a restaurant in 20 years, but everybody knows his name?”

Mistry never even met Gilmore. To Mistry, though, Gilmore’s prominence has created an ecosystem where queer, female-identifying chefs no longer have to fight quite as hard for the basic courtesy of acknowledgment from the food establishment. “I can’t deny that, even though I never met her, or what have you, or that her career was eclipsed in some way in terms of the public, that doesn’t form a foundation or a basis for how the media and the dining community react to up-and-coming queer chefs and women chefs,” Mistry says.

Gilmore’s queerness mattered — and still matters today — precisely because her work gave permission to other chefs who followed. As more time elapses since her death, history may remember her as an advocate for women in the kitchen who possessed a startlingly distinct culinary vision. Yet any tribute to Gilmore’s work must acknowledge her queerness, too, a truth she lived with utter conviction.

Mayukh Sen is a writer in New York. He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing, and he teaches food journalism at New York University. His first book, on immigrant food in America, will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2021.