American transgender chef Chris Trapani, who was in the city as part of a skill-building workshop for the transgender community, on his extraordinary journey.
At about four-and-a-half feet, Chris Trapani is dwarfed by most people. With a voice that wouldn’t carry too far in a crowd, it’s easy to dismiss the bespectacled chef as unremarkable. But that’s only until you hear his story. The American chef, who runs a food truck and catering company in Texas, was conducting a Tex-Mex cooking demonstration on the lawns of The Lalit, in Bengaluru. And even as he implored guests to use potato starch along with corn starch to coat the chicken before deep-frying (“it helps keep the chicken crisp longer”), one’s attention quickly strayed to a table of unconventionally-dressed guests. Most of them were members of Bengaluru’s LGBT community and they are here for a specific reason. As the first transgender chef to appear on American TV channel Food Network, Trapani has been an inspiration and symbol of courage.
All about skills For his visit in Bengaluru, Trapani along with The Lalit Food Truck Company chefs has been tasked with conducting a skill development workshop for members of the transgender community. Quoting from the 2007-animation film, Ratatouille, Trapani believes that “anyone can cook” and he’s hoping to spread the message through these workshops. “For me it was an honour to be asked to be a part of something like this. It’s not necessarily about the food as much as serving a larger purpose,” says the 40-year-old.
As Trapani talks about his journey into food, it’s not a story that had a very happy beginning. Growing up in Brooklyn, Trapani, who was born female, was subject to constant bullying in school. “At that time, in any of the boroughs of New York, you were zoned to go to a particular school. It was hard to transfer to another school as the waiting lists were really long. I was like the only white kid in my school; it was mainly African-Americans so I got picked on a lot. Plus, not only did I look different in that sense but I also wore my hair short which made me stand out.” When Trapani landed a summer school job at a cafeteria at the age of 15, little did he realise that it would change his life. “Until then, I had always wanted to be a detective or a police officer. But I enjoyed the work [at the cafeteria] enough to stick to it,” Trapani recalls. A year or two later, when Trapani made the decision to drop out of high school, he managed to get work at Burger King and grocery shops. “When I was little older and my mother was comfortable with the idea of me travelling to Manhattan on work, I landed a job at a catering company there.” Although Trapani doesn’t have formal culinary training (apart from a short stint at a Texan culinary institute that he left midway), he doesn’t believe it has, in any way, impeded his progress. For the young chef, learning on the job has been key to his success. “Initially, my parents would tell me to stop bouncing from job to job but I never wanted to settle until I got where I wanted to be. There are a billion restaurants in New York – there’s no better way to learn. And if you have passion for the job and the ability to learn and better yourself then anyone can grow in this industry.”
Personally speaking While Trapani was acquiring much-needed skill sets to grow his career, he always felt dissatisfied with one aspect of his life – relationships. “When I lived as a woman I always had lots of issues in my relationships and I didn’t understand why. I had anger issues, depression issues and I didn’t want to be around people.” It wasn’t until Trapani met his partner and now wife that he realised what the problem was. From Austin, Texas, it was Trapani’s wife who encouraged him to transition. And having a supportive partner gave Trapani the courage to go through the transitioning phase which can take several months to complete and recover from – both physically as well as emotionally. Plus, he had the added burden of holding a corporate job for a catering company in Alabama – “a state that still doesn’t have any LGBT protection laws,” Trapani notes. “I was a regional chef, and would travel to other states and coach managers and others. I was going to transition while I was in this role and my first thoughts were, ‘Am I going to retain people’s respect? Is my corporate office going to fire me?’ I almost gave up a few times but my wife kept pushing me.”
Goals on point Today, Trapani’s wife also helps him with office work as well as bartending when they cater for weddings and other events. While they launched their company Urban Cowboy in 2012, it was in 2013 that Trapani shot to fame when he became the first transgender chef to appear on a reality cooking show called Chopped. Again it was a decision that Trapani toyed with endlessly before deciding to open up on national TV. “My concern was that it might affect my business negatively. But then I thought to myself, ‘Do I want business from people who can’t respect who I am?’” A day after the show aired, their website got over a 1,000 hits. “And apart from two hate mails, I literally got hundreds of mails of encouragement and support.” Trapani, who is aware of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature”, hopes that his message of empowerment and believing in yourself will touch a few lives for the better. “The people in power need to realise that they are just hurting and alienating an entire community by refusing to acknowledge their rights and I think initiatives like these are important so that people sit up and take notice. For instance, Austin got really inclusive a few years ago when companies such as Facebook, Dell, Google and others either opened up or expanded to include trans people and others from the community. Now, most people are used to having transgender co-workers.”
As parting advice for those who are still struggling to find their identities or come out to their families, Trapani’s strongly recommends finding somebody who will listen to you. “Even if it’s not in your immediate family or circle, there are several online communities and helplines that can help you. You just have to reach out.”
Source, Shivani Kagti for BangaloreMirror.