Frances Tariga is a superstar chef and openly queer trailblazer who rocketed to stardom after appearing on Bravo’s Top Chef. But her path wasn’t always clear and her journey from the Philippines to NYC was a struggle to find herself as a chef and a queer person. Raised in Manila, Frances began cooking with her father at a very young age but describes herself as a troubled youth. Then she took a culinary course and fell deeply, passionately in love with food.
“I was told I’d never make it,” she says. “So that became my motivation. I took what they said constructively. There were times when I got to the point that I wanted to give up because it was so hard to be a female in male-dominated kitchens. But I proved them wrong!”
Her first gig at a New York restaurant was as a sous chef at Buddakan. But she still struggled with self-confidence and hesitated when a friend encouraged her to try out for Top Chef; her decision to do so (season 13, for those interested) changed everything. She left Buddakan for Catch NYC, and now she’s working on a secret culinary project. We caught up with Frances to chat about being a queer chef, her favorite local spots to eat and her advice to visitors coming to the City.
What was your first job cooking in New York City? Frances Tariga: I started my career as a prep cook in Dubai at the Burj al Arab Jumeirah. It was difficult. Dubai is a Muslim country, and there were only few women working in the kitchen. After that I became the private chef for the Royal Princess of Dubai and worked in that position for six years. I came to America in 2011 as the private chef of the Royal Ambassador for the United Arab Emirates.
How is New York different from other places you’ve cooked? FT: I’ve traveled the whole world, cooked for different nationalities, races and religions, and I speak seven languages. And what sets this city apart from all of those other places is the freedom to be me! I am treated equally. I get paid equally. That’s what I love about NYC.
What are some local places that inspire you as a chef? FT: The street fairs during summer. The diversity of the food and people will make you realize how lucky you are just to live in New York.
When you’re not cooking, where are some places you like to eat in the City? FT: I like to go to Jackson Heights in Queens to eat authentic Filipino food. The place I like is called Krystal’s Cafe. But most of the time my chef friends and I try different new, cool places like Crown Shy. It’s really good and reasonably priced.
What impact has the LGBTQ+ community had on the culinary world in NYC? FT: The community helped transform a tough culinary world into a more equal one. I made sure that whatever men can do, women can do too. And, actually, the people who worked in the kitchens here in NYC are well-educated about LGBTQ+ issues. They even know gender pronouns!
Do you have any tips for people coming to eat in NYC for the first time? FT: Don’t go to touristy places! I like going to neighborhood restaurants in the Village. There are tons of secret gems there. I love this small joint called Takashi, near Henrietta Hudson. They sell this late-night ramen. They don’t advertise it, and it’s the best ramen I’ve ever tasted by far.