Inclusive Spaces For Love: Indian LGBTQ+ Chefs Share Stories

It’s a celebration of love they say, a day to make your commitment to that one special person be known to the world, and now it’s also an entire week packed with celebrations. Yes, Valentine’s Day—and now Valentine’s Week—is highly commercialised and often very cheesy, but for most people in India, it has become a festival to celebrate love no matter what cultural, religious or regional background they come from. But what about queer love on Valentine’s Day?  

The countrywide obsession with celebrating Valentine’s Day with special brunches, candle-lit date nights and elaborate gift hampers is something that the Indian food and beverage industry has caught on to pretty well. But are all of these offers to celebrate love in all its forms, freely and openly, extended to the Indian LGBTQIA+ community?  

The fact is, even after Section 377 was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2018, the stigma around queer love (no matter which part of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow you identify with) in India still exists, and one of the most visible forms of discrimination against the queer community becomes evident in restaurants, cafes and other F&B spaces. Depending on the place, it is quite common for queer couples to be asked either politely or rudely to leave. Side eyes, constant gaze and surveillance can also be quite common. When all you want is to enjoy a celebratory meal with your partner on Valentine’s or any other day, these experiences can be quite daunting and disheartening. 

But even while queer couples and their love doesn’t find a place in many F&B institutions even today, there are plenty of entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurateurs across India who are creating safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ persons to celebrate their love while digging into the most delicious of food. You might have heard of Bambai Nazariya and Kitty Su in Mumbai, or even places like MIST in Pune, but there are more queer-friendly places that are coming up now to celebrate queer love with a lot of panache, good food and great beverages. 

This Valentine’s Day, Slurrp caught up with three such chefs and entrepreneurs who not only come from the LGBTQIA+ community, but are also dedicated to celebrating queer love by building spaces that offer safe havens and good food. Here is what they had to say. 

Building Safe Spaces For Queer Love & Food 

Anybody who knows anything about the progressive Indian food movement in India knows who Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, the co-founder of Edible Archives in Pune, is. The ingredient-driven restaurant is run by the chef and her partner, Shalini Krishan, and is known for focusing on sustainability and seasonality. Ghosh Dastidar says that though her intention wasn’t to cater exclusively to the queer community, her place is pretty well known to be safe for love in all its forms. “As queer owners who have friends and acquaintances who belong to the community, Edible Archives invariably becomes one of the places where queer people feel safe and don’t have to think about something as basic as holding hands.” 

She says that there are times when the team looks around the restaurant and finds that most of the tables are filled with queer people. “This is not done on purpose, we don’t even do queer events that frequently—but people know, and they feel safe and comfortable,” she explains. When we design a place, we design it for everyone. So, heterosexual couples do feel comfortable here. But even more so with queer couples. Not only Edible Archives in Goa, but also in my other restaurant, Bento Bento in Bengaluru, is also very queer-friendly.” 

For Chef Taha Khan, Founder & Owner of Le Flamington, Pune, the dream was to set up a bespoke Parisian-style cafe that specializes in single-origin chocolate, entremets, bonbons, and an extensive range of gluten-free and keto-friendly products. But being from the community himself, being queer-friendly as a space was also on the top of his mind. “Our core value, "Luxury is Affordable," underscores inclusiveness, embracing people from diverse backgrounds and ingredients from various parts of the world, including local sources,” he says. “Since 2017, Le Flamington has upheld the values of inclusiveness and pluralism, even during the presence of Section 377. We continue to stand by these principles, supporting equality in marriage and promoting mental health awareness.” 

In the city of Hyderabad, Hephzibah Smith runs the ever-popular People’s Choice Cafe. But unlike Khan and Ghosh Dastidar, her intent behind the space she created was always clearly driven towards promoting equality in love and access to good food. “There was a part of me that always understood that food is one way to bring everyone closer and, at the same time, being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, I wanted to create a safe space for the queer community,” she explains.  

Smith explains that Hyderabad as a city has very few queer-friendly spaces. “There is Hope In A Cup in Madhapur and we are here at People’s Choice Cafe,” she explains. “So clearly, safe spaces for LGBTQ+ couples in the city and in India is quite lacking. My business partner Mohammed Adam and I, we were looking for spaces like that too. And then we decided that if we’re not finding the space then we’ll create it. That’s how we came up with People’s Choice Cafe in 2018. For us at People’s Choice Cafe, the goal is not just to set up a queer-friendly space but a human-friendly one.”  

It’s Not Queer-Friendly Without A Sensitised Staff 

Smith says that training the staff, whether they are in the kitchen or on the restaurant floor, plays a major role in creating queer-friendly food spaces. “When I was working at other places, I used to see how queer couples were often asked politely to leave,” she says. “Sometimes rudely too. But now people know that this is not acceptable and staff are also trained and sensitised accordingly. I also think that not only F&B places, but every place, even offices and schools, should be sensitised.”   

Ghosh Dastidar agrees. “We also train our staff and we give them the awareness they need, which is why our restaurants have become more queer-friendly spaces,” she explains. “We make it very clear as a part of the training that these are the principles of acceptance that need to be followed, and that there should be no discrimination and side-eyes, etc. These rules apply for the staff not only for the LGBTQ+ community but for anybody who looks different or stand out. We make sure there is a lot of conversation within our team around this.” 

But while controlling the vibe and working environment of their own cafes and restaurants might be relatively easier—these spaces are owned by them after all—what about the F&B industry at large? Whether it’s Ghosh Dastidar or even chefs like Ritu Dalmia, there simply aren’t that many recognisable queer idols in the Indian F&B industry. But Ghosh Dastidar believes this will change once queer chefs like her take the charge to make the change and inspire people.  

“Just my presence in the F&B industry gives hope to a lot of people,” she says. “I also meet a lot of young chefs, women and queer alike, who talk to me about the path ahead because it is extremely male dominated. So, making the kitchen a safe space matters too. I constantly tell queer people looking for jobs in the F&B sector that I’ll be happy to share advice and more, because I owe this to the community.”  

Smith agrees and adds that the Indian F&B market is slowly but surely waking up to the potential that queer consumers can offer. “Nowadays, a lot of people are using the LGBTQ+ community as an unexplored market in the F&B space,” she says. “At the same time, there are queer chefs and restaurateurs who are driven by the need to create safe spaces. No matter what the reason, having these queer-friendly spaces is very important because a lot of places are very homophobic. Personally, I feel creating such a safe space for the queer community to enjoy simple meals and share food with their loved ones is a brilliant investment. And for queer people, we are willing to pay enough to enjoy the safety of such spaces too. These spaces are not that easily available even in cities like Mumbai, so people will travel far and wide to these cafes and restaurants.”