A gay chef talks life in the professional kitchen

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Back in April 2014, it was announced that a new restaurant would be opening in the Melrose Theater. Sinema was designed around the major original features of the Melrose, which opened in 1942: elements of the lobby, mirrored walls and ceilings, and the impressive curved grand staircase. “It was crucial that we listened to the message that the building was giving us,” said Colin Reed, a partner/owner in Sinema. “The spirit of this historic gem in Nashville demanded that we do this the right way.”

Based on the old Hollywood feel of the design and décor of the location, Dale Levitski, the restaurant’s executive chef, said of the concept, “We were going with a sort of ‘Nashvegas’ theme. Nashville is full of places that were going with lots of reclaimed wood, designs that use farm-to-table as more than a cooking philosophy, but as a style. We went over the top with a jazz, Patti Lapone feel. Old school American luxury informed our décor and our food, which is a luxurious, exciting take on American cuisine.”

Six months later, Sinema is playing to packed houses on weekends and serving a growing weekday clientele. Part of the draw is the ambience, of course, but a great deal of the buzz surrounding Sinema is generated by its celebrity executive chef. Levitski—runner-up on the third season of Bravo’s Top Chef—is also one of the most well-known gay chefs working in America today.

IMG_0517.jpgLevitski never attended culinary school: he learned by fire. “Cooking kind of found me [when] I was in college,” Levitski explained. “I moved out of the dorms and applied as a fry cook in Iowa City. The place was kind of like a downgraded Applebee’s. The manager asked why I wasn’t applying to be a server. As a college athlete, I guess I was cute.” But Levitski explained, “Really, I was so painfully shy that I didn’t want to talk to people. Now I’m obnoxious but back then I was a wall flower. But it was there that I fell in love with the rush of the kitchen.”

Levitski did want to go to culinary school, though his plan backfired. “I was going to leave Iowa and move to Chicago for a year. I’d cook in the big city for a year, save up some money, and then go to a culinary program in San Fran. But that plan was an epic fail! What I didn’t understand then was that the bigger city you go to, the less you make in terms of take-home pay. So, I ended up jumping into the industry and never looked back.”

In 1998, Levitski worked for Carol Wallack at Deleece, learning the basics, and then for James Beard Award winning chef Paul Kahan at Blackbird, which he often cites as “his culinary school.” From there he served as head chef at La Tache and the famous Trio Atelier. Then there was Top Chef. “My boyfriend at the time and I were watching the show and by the second episode, I was yelling at the screen. He told me I should go on the show, but my friends were split over whether it would be great or ruin my career. It was all so new.”

When he and his boyfriend broke up—and when his restaurant, Orange, closed—Levitski decided to go for it. “The whole process was very bazaar—unemployed and broke, I flew out and basically forced my way on the show! I had been coached on how to apply: ‘Turn the volume on your personality way up!’ So, I went out there and basically just declared, “I’m a gay cook from the Midwest, and you’re Bravo. It’s a no-brainer!’ I would tease Andy on set every day, and he would look at me like ‘Who is this person?’”

Levitski’s sexuality was part of his entertainment value on the show and behind the scenes. Professional kitchens are notoriously hyper-masculine and full of strong personalities. “Ever since I started working in the kitchen, I knew I had to be out front. “Kitchens are full of harsh language, the worse the insult you can get the better! I’ve never shied away from using being gay to disarm. When Andy would walk by on the set, I would say, ‘Fag!’ It would totally throw him off balance.”

Sinema_upstaislounge1.jpgOne shouldn’t think Levitski takes sexuality lightly, but being forward and open about it has been “a disarming way to get respect. It was during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. They didn’t ask, but I told. In college sports I was living in a necessarily closeted sort of environment. In the kitchen, I used it as an opportunity to get as out-there as possible.” This has changed attitudes. “If someone was conservative and looked offended when we were bantering, I could always point out that he had said something similar about women. The person would either have an ‘Oh’ moment or they’d loosen up.”

Levitski has done his best to make sure that being gay hasn’t held him back in the cut-throat world of elite kitchens, “I’m not in the boys club. I’m not invited to do certain events. I’m not cliquish with chefs, but I’m also not the most social person anyway, so that’s not a huge loss. Some cooks won’t work for me.” While his status has shielded him from overt homophobia, even in Nashville, he said, “Some of my cooks are given a hard time, even though they’re straight. When they hang out with other cooks after work, they sometimes get the ‘You work for him?’ attack. They’ve been very valiant in defending themselves and me.”

Nashville as a whole, however, doesn’t seem to mind. “People seem to like what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re bringing a different style of food and expanding the food scene.” While he is regaling customers with his Frog and Snail signature dish, beef stroganoff, Levitski is also committed to “discovering local products and produce, which you’ll see reflected in experiments we’ll use to help better understand the local palate.” This, he thinks, promises to be an exciting journey.