Arguably one of the most recognized personalities at the intersection of the culinary, Jewish and queer communities, Jake Cohen is a chef and food writer who has made ample use of social media to propel his career forward. And with nearly 600,000 Instagram followers, Cohen is aware that his identity within those communities is part and parcel of his public persona and what actually allowed him to stand out in such a competitive field. “Being gay and being Jewish are pretty much everything that has dictated my career,” the 28-year-old told Anna Rahmanan in this edition of Voices in Food, in which he also discusses the differences between the two communities, the pros and cons of social media and more.
How being Jewish and queer have shaped his life in the kitchen
When I think of who I am, it’s dictated by the fact that I was raised with this understanding of Judaism — and not in a traditional sense, as we were raised pretty reformed. Jewish values are focused on hospitality, on being a good community member, on treating others the way you want to be treated, on not bearing false witness, on standing by the truth, on trying to repair the world ― and I feel like all of these things are what I try to strive toward every day.
Being queer has helped me discover my Jewishness and vice versa. There is this concept of finding pride in however you are different and, oftentimes, we think of that through the lens of queerness. In a place like New York and in the mainstream media, it is much cooler to be queer than to be Jewish. Seeing the way I addressed my pride as a gay man has helped me find my pride in being Jewish.
That’s completely true in the kitchen, as well. One of the big things that I’m fighting for is pride in Jewish food and traditions. I think there was such a push for assimilation when we immigrated to America and a lot of culinary traditions are rooted in the shtetl and times of poverty, times of persecution. I think a huge part of it was trying to distance ourselves from that when we came to America. However, at the same time, there is this excitement around deli culture right now that needs to trickle down and focus to make sure that Jewish food is as respected as any other marginalized cuisine that we see celebrated in food magazines.
Food is a vessel. We always talk about what gay food is, what queer food is and, for me personally, the definition has always been the way food has been connected to stories of queerness. Whether it’s the meal that you came out to your parents over or the food that you make as you build a queer community, or the first meal you had with your queer partner. All the things that become part of your narrative as a queer person, the same way that so many Jewish foods are foods that came from other cultures and areas that got absorbed by Jews.
On the pressure to represent your community
I think there is this idea that we need someone to represent each community and it’s impossible, because these stories are so unique. Everyone’s connection to their queerness and Jewishness is so beyond nuanced.
When you look at someone’s Jewish identity, you think of where their family came from, and you have all of these stories that have all of these different parts. You have people of mixed heritage and they create a unique narrative that represents themselves and not their community in general.
“The main drawback to social media is that your followers misinterpret your actual relationship with them. If I owned a restaurant, for example, people would come in and pay to eat. ... On social media, it’s more of a dinner party.”
I see the same thing in terms of queerness. Someone’s relationship to how food and their queerness represents them is super personal and always unique. I think this need for overarching definitions is just never going to happen.
How the government needs to protect communities
It really comes down to a need for codification around hate in any form, whether it’s hate for queer people, Jewish people, people of color. Any sort of discrimination.
For me, there is not one answer. I am not a politician, I am not a government official, I am not a person who focuses on that. For me, living in the bubble that is New York, compared to somebody from the South or another coast or another part of this country, it’s so different. But I think that it has to do with the way we talk as a community and a society around what our issues are, where we need to put our attention. What are the things that we are focusing on versus the actual core things that help protect our community? I think the most important thing for both communities, for any community, is safety.
What consumers can do to help
The issue is that consumers are just one part. I think it’s really the people who are selling that we need to focus on. Whether it’s a product, a food, a restaurant, whatever — I think leading at the forefront with that identity is such a key part because consumers act and they are looking to support Jewish food, for example, but they need to have these places that are selling be visible and really telling the world that is what they are doing.
The pros and cons of social media as a food influencer
The main drawback to social media is that your followers misinterpret your actual relationship with them. If I owned a restaurant, for example, people would come in and pay to eat. They’d be patrons I’d be serving. On social media, it’s more of a dinner party. You are welcoming people into your home and there is a non-monetary-based connection, but you have to have mutual respect ― respect for the people who are supporting you and letting you do what you love, but also respect for you.
You don’t owe them to be answering them 24/7 and getting into personal aspects of your life. You get to pick and choose. When you go to someone’s house, do you expect them to wait on you hand and foot? And yet, incredible blessings have come to my life exclusively through social media and I think that I would do everything all over again because, with all the downfalls, it has allowed me to do what I do.
Tips for up-and-coming chefs
The concept of being yourself is everything. People can sniff out inauthenticity and if the world likes what you’re selling as much as you do, then success will happen for you. It requires a lot of work and an equal amount of luck. The hardest thing is perseverance.