For Mayukh Sen, a James Beard Award-winning food writer and adjunct professor at NYU, the entry point into food writing has always been the stories of the people behind the food. Having suffered immense personal losses in the past few years, including the deaths of his father and best friend, Sen has become increasingly attuned to the importance of remembrance.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that his portfolio is filled with profiles of creatives from the food world whose legacy has been downplayed by much of the food media. Among them: Princess Pamela, a Black chef from the American South known for her soul food, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, a gay immigrant from Peru who brought tapas to America. Sen’s forthcoming book, due out this November, has a similar focus: “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America.”
Those themes are especially evident in “The Queer Legacy of Elka Gilmore,” published for pride month last June at Eater San Francisco. The story follows the career of Gilmore, “one of Bay Area dining’s most recognizable names in the 1990s,” who died in 2019 at age 59. Gilmore spent her life creating daring dishes — and daring to be out as gay from the time she was 12, then going on to mentor young, queer and often female-identifying chefs of the San Francisco Bay Area. It seemed, as Sen wrote, that “a queer culinary oasis sprouted overnight under Gilmore’s watch.”
I spoke with Sen about some of the key aspects of story craft at work in this profile.
The writer-editor relationship
From the inception of a piece, an editor’s guidance can be essential. “A good editor can really whip the story into shape,” says Sen. “This has been true since I started writing professionally, and it continues to be true.”
Luke Tsai of Eater San Francisco was an editor Sen had always wanted to work with. But when Tsai reviewed Sen’s first draft, he suggested that the direction of the piece be changed to highlight Gilmore’s legacy as a queer chef. Sen says his first draft was more analytical, but lacked the solid reporting needed to deliver on Tsai’s request. So he went back to work.
After additional interviews, especially with Dana Farkas, a chef who is a prominent voice in the story, Sen says his second draft looked dramatically different. Farkas helps the reader absorb what it meant for Gilmore to be an out gay woman in the industry. “Attitudes suddenly changed, generally not for the good or in her favor,” she is quoted as saying.
Capturing interest and then building on it
The first section of the profile acts as a hook to pull in the reader and hints at Gilmore’s legacy. “I’m one of those writers who can’t write the rest of the piece until I figure out a lede,” says Sen. The Gilmore lede is gripping and pertinent, and sets up a central question for the reader:
Elka Gilmore’s career began with a lie.
The obvious reader response: What lie? From there, Sen unspools the fearless and determined ways in which Gilmore chose to live her life. The first anecdote is built around the lie Gilmore told about her age to land her first job in a kitchen. At the conclusion of the piece, Sen returns to this idea of fearlessness when he writes:
Yet any tribute to Gilmore’s work must acknowledge her queerness, too, a truth she lived with utter conviction.
“You don’t want to give away too much information,” Sen told me about pulling a reader into and through a story. “But you want to give away enough so that you will not leave the reader confused in any way.” Sen works to retain clarity but drops in additional cliffhangers or teases along the way to keep the reader going. For example, the sentence that closes the first of the story’s three sections quotes Farkas as saying, “I think Elka was a pioneer in many ways.” The goal is to pull the reader forward to discover what those ways were. Other sentences throughout the story are designed to provoke curiosity or promise the reader that there is more to come.
Source-selection and over-reporting
The second section fulfills the promise of the first by tracing the markers of Gilmore’s career and her impact on the lives she touched.
As he reported, Sen found himself fascinated with everything he was learning. He ended up speaking to 16 people, some of them off-the-record. “I started to have this fear that it was snowballing out of my control,” he says. It’s a common challenge for Sen: Gathering so much information that, when confronted with pages of transcript, it’s difficult to harness them into a cohesive narrative. So he looks for patterns that allow him to condense information while remaining transparent and credible. Example:
Conversations with nearly a dozen of Gilmore’s former coworkers reveal that Gilmore fostered a similarly welcoming environment in her own kitchen at Elka…
But if Sen overreports, he chooses his sources with a purpose. When covering a marginalized community, he seeks out voices from those communities. He always knew that Elizabeth Falkner and Traci Des Jardins, who had worked with Gilmore, would be important voices in the story. That led him to Farkas. He also knew he wanted to include Preeti Mistry’s voice after reading about the Oakland chef on public radio piece the “Queer Kitchen;” which was Sen’s introduction to Gilmore. Other sources are chosen for the perspective authority they have on a subject. For example, veteran food writer Maria Lorraine Binchet had noticed the value of Gilmore’s private work in mentoring queer chefs, something Sen also includes in his story.
As for Gilmore’s voice, Sen drew on an interview she had done with Out magazine: “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.” The direct statement, coming from her, gives Sen’s profile the credibility it needs to focus, in part, on her sexuality.
Respecting your subject
The third section of the profile is a reflection on Gilmore’s queer legacy, including the challenges it invited. Throughout the piece, the reader gets to see the positive aspects of her achievements and might wonder if she ever did anything wrong. But at one point in this section, the tone shifts as Sen delves into a darker period of Gilmore’s life.
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.)
“I always fight the fear that I might end up sanitizing someone’s story, especially when I’m trying to write against a historical record that has neglected people like Elka Gilmore,” Sen says. He did not want to romanticize Gilmore, and his reporting revealed some of the immense struggles she faced in her personal life. But those incidents did not define her, especially not to his sources. “My sources had empathy for her struggles, not judgment,” he says.
Furthermore, very few sources wanted to speak on the record about that period in Gilmore’s life, and he feels it important to keep trust with sources, especially those from marginalized communities. And, of course, Gilmore could not speak for herself. He didn’t find earlier interviews either where she addressed this part of her life. “Dwelling on those details would’ve felt like the cheap, easy way out for me as a journalist — a way of trading on salacious gossip,” he says. “She was very much a private person later on in her life.”
Thus Sen sticks to his matter-of-fact tone, stating the public record for an honest overview but without giving these incidents too much real estate in the narrative. And he wanted to keep the piece tight and focused. “Elka’s personal demons, it was clear from my conversations, had very little to do with the essence of the story,” he says. “My piece is ultimately about her tenacity in an industry that didn’t have much room for her, and her guidance of other chefs, most of them female-identifying and queer.”
Personal identity as a means for reflection
Journalists are often taught that their personal identity is irrelevant to the story they are telling. Yet it can be an asset when harnessed and channeled appropriately. Even Sen’s story selection is sometimes informed by his identity. “The reason why I’m drawn to people like Elka is because I have experienced so much marginalization as a queer person of color in this world and also within the food media,” he explains. “So I understand what it’s like to be misunderstood or disregarded by very powerful people. At the same time, I carry very fundamental privilege in that I’m a cis-man telling these stories.”
When Sen does draw on his own voice to reflect on Gilmore’s queer legacy, it is deeply convincing:
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.
Armed with his reporting, Sen chooses to disagree with di Vecchio. Further on, he adds the voices of writer John Birdsall and chef Preeti Mistry, to provide further support for his own argument that Gilmore influenced queer chefs around the country. Since this was the central theme of Sen’s piece, he could have chosen to ignore di Vecchio’s voice, but it echoed comments from some others that Sen interviewed. He felt it was important to address what felt like an erasure of her identity, and a fact that had been downplayed by the food media.
“In writing a lot of these pieces about figures who have been forgotten or misunderstood or discarded in historical memory, I’m reminded of this basic truth that the food media has a very, very short memory,” Sen says.
But for Sen, the act of remembrance is what lies at the heart of his body of work. “From the onset, I understood food stories as human stories,” he says. “It just feels to me like the most logical entry point to writing about food at all.”
Aiman Javed writes about food, culture, and community. She is a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan and a graduate student of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Currently, she is an editorial intern at StarChefs in Brooklyn, New York.