The drag brunch is a phenomenon that’s sashaying its way across the country, from Bushwick, N.Y., to Waikiki, where Wang Chungs Karaoke Bar holds a monthly event. In February, the Comedy Central series “Broad City” included a scene with the characters proclaiming “Drag brunch, we must!” and August saw the release of “Drag Queen Brunch,” a cookbook and history on the drag scene in New Orleans by Poppy Tooker (Rainbow Road Press).
Joining right in, the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival is throwing its first Pride party. Drag Appetit turns the fabulosity up to 11, with a colorful celebration of morning foods, cocktails and a stage performance, Oct. 27 at Blue Note Hawaii.
The brunch takes place on the last day of the festival, which opened Oct. 5 on the Big Island and includes events on three islands. Oahu events begin Oct. 23.
To cook for Drag Appetit, the festival reached out to chefs who are gay or strong supporters of the LGBTQ community.
One of them, Star Noodle chef Abby Ferrer, who came out when she was 18, says having a Pride event at the festival is “super awesome,” especially given that the festival co-chairmen, Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, have such a great impact on the islands’ culinary education. “Knowing there are students trying to find their way, having that support out there is always a positive thing.”
October is a significant month for the Maui chef. “It is Filipino American History Month, my eighth anniversary, National Coming Out Day and Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival,” Ferrer says. “All these things that make up my life are celebrated this month.”
DENISE YAMAGUCHI, executive director of the festival, says she is constantly on the lookout for new ideas — fresh venues, themes and formats. An event celebrating the LGBTQ community has long been on her list.
In 2018, the festival was moved from November to October, the same month the Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation holds its Honolulu Pride Festival, making a Pride-related event more timely for the culinary festival.
In February of 2018, Yamaguchi and her team visited the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami Beach, which had its own drag brunch. After that experience, she says, the concept of Drag Appetit was born, “extending the Pride celebrations through the end of the month.”
Adding another layer to the timing: 2019 marks the silver anniversary of violent demonstrations that followed a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City — protests that changed the course of LGBTQ rights in the U.S.
“We thought it would be great to launch something that marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City’s West Village,” Yamaguchi said.
WITH DRAG APPETIT being a meaningful milestone for participating chefs, it’s not surprising the dishes they are cooking up tell personal stories.
Ferrer was born and raised in Queens, N.Y., moving while in high school to Westchester County, N.Y., where her mother ran a Filipino grocery store. She says it is very fulfilling to cook the cuisine of her heritage at Star Noodle, after years of cooking “other people’s food.”
She taps into that heritage for her Drag Appetit dish — turning the breakfast her mother made for her as a child into a slider filled with sweet, garlicky longanisa sausage, made with Pono Pork Provisions ground pork, a fried egg and achara, a green papaya relish.
Being a woman created challenges for her in the kitchen, Ferrer says. “I learned how to work around all those issues. We need to do the best all the time, regardless of gender or orientation. I can live the life I want to live and have the career I want to have because I have aligned myself with people who are supportive. There have been (difficult) moments, but I’ve never let it define my everyday life or the drive that I have. Put your big-girl pants on and keep going. You’re not going to survive if you don’t advocate for yourself and push yourself to be better than yesterday.”
She adds that she finds on Maui, “people are more about what kind of person you are, versus what kind of pigeonhole they can put you in.”
Also in the lineup is chef Will Chen, founder of Fresh Box meal kits, who says Drag Appetit is a sign of how far the Pride movement has come. “It’s great to see that such a partnership is possible these days. People I talk to are very excited about the event. It’s nice to have the diversity and exposure to the festival’s large audience.”
Chen divides his time between Honolulu and Boston, where he grew up in his family’s Chinese restaurants. Like Ferrer, he takes inspiration from his roots for his Drag Appetit dish, serving a rendition of ginger chicken and jook, using “local birds and fresh herbs.”
Kelvin Ro, chef-owner of Diamond Head Market & Grill, has been fundraising for and teaching at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific for 20 years and running his business for 18. He’s also been a sounding board for Yamaguchi and he thought Drag Appetit was a great idea.
“Because I have so many students, employees, and friends in the LGBTQ community, and who are struggling with all kinds of issues, if there’s anything we can do to support them, I am all for it,” says Ro.
He gave Diamond Head Market & Grill executive chef Diane Nazarro the honor of creating his brunch bites. “I wanted the dishes to scream!” says the ebullient Nazarro, a veteran of the Honolulu culinary scene who grew up helping out with her family’s company, Kohala Pickle Products. Taking cues from Hawaiian and Mexican cuisines, she is making a Big Island pork belly Benedict and the fanciest migas you’ve ever seen — the traditional Tex-Mex scramble redefined as a tortilla shell filled with venison chorizo.
PERFORMING AT Drag Appetit will be the dazzling duo Jason Victorino and GDolce, who host Party Monster, a monthly glam revue at the downtown dance club Scarlet. “It’s a great opportunity to show how diverse and full of love our community can be,” says Victorino. “Our show portrays that. When you think of a drag queen, most people think of a feminine entity, but we have masculine entities, we also have drag kings, females that portray men — we’ll show all that at Drag Appetit.”
The festival team met with the Legacy Foundation to discuss how the festival could best celebrate the LGBTQ community, says Yamaguchi. “Their team connected us with the drag performance group.”
The pair’s inventive personas — so much more than costumes and makeup — are masterworks of color and composition, right down to otherworldly contact lenses, that transcend gender and sexual orientation. If a Papua New Guinea bird of paradise became a human, it would be Victorino and Gdolce.
“That is what our brand is about — looks head to toe, making you dance and get out of your seat,” says Gdolce, adding that both are foodies who eat out every day.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity during the 50th anniversary of Stonewall,” says Victorino, “and an honor to perform at the Blue Note where so many stars have been. It’s going to be an hour of entertainment, fabulosity and craziness!”
Featuring brunch dishes by six guest chefs and craft cocktails
>> When: 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 27
>> Where: Blue Note Hawaii, Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, 2335 Kalakaua Ave.
>> Tickets: $95; $150 VIP, available at hfwf.me
>> Note: Along with Kelvin Ro and Abby Ferrer, participating chefs include Chai Chaowasaree, Chef Chai (Honolulu); Will Chen, Fresh Box (Honolulu); Delia Romano, Outrigger Waikiki food and beverage area director (Beach and Reef hotels); Khristianne Uy (aka “Chef K”), personal chef and 2013 winner of “The Taste” (Los Angeles)