Queer representation on culinary competition shows is not entirely new. We watched chef Tiffani Faison ascend to acclaim after her runner-up finish on Top Chef's first season in 2006. Plus, who doesn't love a Ted Allen moment a la Chopped?
That being said, it's rare that a nonbinary chef is given time in the food television limelight, but Top Chef Canada has risen to meet the need. Vancouver chef Kym Nguyen proves they are a culinary force to be reckoned with as the first out nonbinary competitor in Top Chef franchise history.
"I have never viewed myself as a role model...I have always been just myself, living my life and my own story," says Nguyen. "After deciding to [compete on Top Chef Canada], it made me realize that this is actually a great thing for the community. It lets so many people see who I am as a person, a chef, and what it means to be nonbinary."
Born and raised in London, Nguyen has been cooking professionally for over 15 years. When an opportunity arose for the chef to move to Canada with a previous partner back in 2009, they jumped at the chance to cross the pond in search of a more progressive-minded restaurant culture.
After spending eight years in Toronto, Ngyuen settled in Vancouver in 2017. It was there the chef embraced their nonbinary identity and found success working as the sous-chef at the acclaimed eatery Pidgin (PidginVancouver.com). They credit both the queer and restaurant communities for helping them gain a new outlook on themselves.
"It took me a long time to figure out what my true, authentic self was, so living in Vancouver really helped me discover [that]," explains the 34-year-old chef. "When I moved to the city, I didn't have anyone, and I had to put myself out there and make new friends, discover what the community was, and what it meant for me to be queer."
At Pidgin, Nguyen uses their worldly experience, Chinese-Vietnamese roots, and open-mindedness to help guide a small but mighty team. Working with a nonbinary person may be new for many in the restaurant industry, but just like making a mistake on the line during dinner service, Nguyen says the simplest remedy to pronoun missteps is to realize the mistake, correct yourself, and move on. Their accepting approach to kitchen management -- a stark contrast to the screaming and pan throwing of an older generation of white cisgender males -- has proven a recipe for success.
"I have a different connection with every single person in my kitchen," says Nguyen. "They all come talk to me about different things that they may not have the comfortability to talk about with someone higher up than me."
The biggest notch on Nguyen's culinary belt to date is their spectacular showing on the current season of Top Chef Canada. The show's ninth season has been its most diverse yet, highlighting an array of Canadian talent including its first Indigenous female competitor, Siobhan Detkavich, and of course, its first nonbinary chef in Nguyen.
"I sat down with the whole cast [on the first day of filming] to talk to them about being nonbinary," they say. "We had a conversation about it, how I identified, what it meant for me to be nonbinary, and about using the pronouns they/them. All of the chefs made a conscious effort and so did the production crew as well. Everyone was really accepting and they were also thankful to me for sharing my story."
Regardless, Nguyen went into filming having some doubts in terms of how they would be portrayed being the first on one of Canada's most popular culinary competition programs. They remained hopeful that the show would provide a platform to share their story with a nation. And that's exactly what happened.
"I'm always really open about who I am and my gender, but...I did have doubts because I was scared if I was going to be ready to, you know, deal with what was going to come afterwards," says Nguyen. "Looking back now, I think me being on Top Chef Canada has helped make Canadians be more open and to better understand the queer community."
It's Nguyen's hope that diversity continues to improve at all levels of the restaurant industry, from the prep cooks to the restaurateurs and, of course, to all of those future seasons of Top Chef too -- American, Canadian, or otherwise.
"It doesn't matter where you're from or who you are," they say. "It's just a kitchen, and if you can cook, that's all that should matter."
Dan Clapson is a queer food writer based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is The Globe and Mail's restaurant critic and columnist for the Canadian Prairies region, and the creative director of Eat North. When he's not traveling or helping uplift diverse voices through his writing, he's likely eating something delicious. @dansgoodside
This story is part of Out's 2021 Pride Issue. The issue is out on newsstands on June 1, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.