June 5, 2020 at 7:07 pm EDT | by Yariel Valdés González
A Californian conquers the kitchens of ‘MasterChef Spain’
Michael Salazar, gay news, Washington Blade
Michael Salazar (Photo courtesy of RTVE)

A chill went through Michael Salazar’s body when, at 16, his mother asked him, without the slightest bit of shame whether he was a “faggot” — not gay or homosexual, but “faggot” — with all the contemptuous charge that this word can contain. The question caught him off guard and he felt himself dying of shame and fear.

“I froze,” Salazar says, 35 years after it happened. “I don’t know where I got courage from and I answered yes. It was then when she told me that I had to leave the house, and that’s it. She didn’t want to have a faggot under her roof.”

This bitter anecdote was heard for the first time by those who follow Spain’s version of MasterChef, a talent show about culinary skills, which began its eighth season this year. Salazar is the first American contestant on the show that airs every Monday on Spanish television. 

Salazar, 51, was born in Costa Rica and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 7. He grew up in Long Beach, Calif., a city he calls his “hometown.”

An English teacher who is a fan of culinary arts, Salazar decided to try his luck in one of the most popular television competitions in Spain, where he has lived for eight years. He currently lives in Barcelona, close to the sea, with his husband, Fernando. The Blade spoke with him about his past, which is full of discriminatory events, and his present in which he has become a kind of celebrity who motivates many LGBTQ youth every time he appears on screen.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you remember life with your family in the U.S.?

SALAZAR: My family life, if you can call it that, was not very loving. Sometimes, I try to remember something fun or something that makes me feel nostalgic and it only comes to mind when the Costa Rican team arrived in Los Angeles to play a soccer game. My mother threw a party with her friends to celebrate, but I don’t remember if she won or who she played against. As a child, I imagined that I was adopted and that someday my real parents would come to take me. I saw the families of my friends as if they were on TV, both love and affection, and made me want to stay and live with them. In those years, my mother did not like the fact that I was such an effeminate child. It was a cultural and religious issue of the time. She once told me that I was the ‘family’s disrepute’. I didn’t know what the phrase meant at the time, but I knew it wasn’t good. I was about 8 or 9 years old, but it stuck with me.

BLADE: What happened after that episode where his mom kicked him out of the home for being gay?

SALAZAR: I will start by reminding you that in the 1980s we were in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the entire gay community was in a panic. They began to organize very quickly, testing for AIDS, giving psychological help and offering shelters for those who had been kicked out of their homes. Gay and Latino youth experienced more discrimination because our families were very religious and traditional. My friends and I joined a support group organized by the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) in Long Beach and we were helping to raise funds for people who had lost everything to AIDS. They sent me a ticket with a party invitation and my mom read it. When I arrived home from school, she told me that there was a Christian church that turned “faggots and dykes” into “normal” people, and that they had sent me a letter. She asked me why. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on and I didn’t even associate it with the MCC. A chill went through my body. I felt myself dying of shame and fear, because I did not know where the thing was going. I replied that I didn’t know anything about that and it was when she asked me if I was a faggot. I froze, but I don’t know where I got courage from and I answered yes. It was then when she told me that I had to leave the house, and that’s it. She did not want to have a faggot under her roof. So, I asked permission to call my sister to see if she would let me stay at her house. She said yes, but to call her quickly. My sister told me to go (to her) home and that I could stay as long as necessary, but … in a few days she was going to Costa Rica to visit relatives and she didn’t know how long she was going to stay. I promised her that as soon as I found a place to stay, I would leave.

BLADE: How did feeling discriminated against by your own family affect you?

SALAZAR: For many years, I felt guilty and I shouldn’t say that I was gay. But I met such good people who helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault and taught me to love myself. Today, I am a happily married man and I see life with optimism. I know there are things that I will not be able to change, but I do my part to be a better person every day.

BLADE: How much has your life changed since then?

SALAZAR: Having gone through that situation has made me more sensitive to other people who experience any form of discrimination. As a teacher, I instill respect in my students. I understand that there are situations that we cannot change, but what we can do is have a more optimistic view of things. I am a living example that everything can improve in life if you give it a chance. I wish that no other person goes through what I went through, but at the same time, I recognize that it is not so easy. Today, through Instagram, many young people contact me telling me that they identify with my story and that makes me very sad, because I know how bad they have it. I try to encourage them and be patient, everything will improve. Many parents also speak to me, asking how they can help their children who have admitted their orientation. I always tell them that there are support groups, both in person and online, and I encourage them to get in touch with them. I can only advise them from my experiences, however, in these associations they have groups of qualified experts who will help them better than I do.

BLADE: You said that when your mother kicked him out of the house, the California government placed you with a gay father. How different was everything from there?

SALAZAR: The Department of Human Services together with the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles formed a group called Pink Project, which works to place homeless gay and lesbian youth with gay or lesbian parents because other families almost never understood us. I had to live in Burbank, Calif. The one who welcomed me was one of those angels in my life who treated me with great respect and affection, and although I only stayed at his house for a few months, he left such a positive mark on my life that I dare to say that I am who I am, thanks to him.

BLADE: Have you ever felt discriminated against again?

SALAZAR: Unfortunately, yes. In my case, I have been discriminated against on many occasions for three reasons: For being Hispanic, gay and dark, everything that racists hate. I was very sad at first, because I felt it was the never-ending story. Afterwards I developed a thicker skin and I didn’t let it affect me so much. I am happy with who I am and I have people who love me just the same.

BLADE: And how did you end up living in Spain?

SALAZAR: I was working for a great phone company in Victorville, Calif. I made a lot of money, but at the same time it was very hard and I had a lot of stress. I had no life, I was not happy there, I wanted a change. I started traveling within the continent (North America) and nothing. So, I decided to seek out Europe. I went to London, to Paris and when I got to Madrid I said, “Oh! This is it!” I had an immediate connection to Spain and decided to come live here. That was in 2010 and, by the end of 2012, I was already living here in Barcelona.

BLADE: Why do you like life in Spain?

SALAZAR: Living in Spain is very pleasant. As a Hispanic-American I find many similarities with our culture, but here the history is more preserved and can be seen in its palaces, in its castles, in its streets … in short, in everything around it. Unlike what happened to me in the United States, where I lived to work, here I feel that I work to live, and I live very well. I have a new family and some friends who are like my family too. It is incredible that a country as small as Spain has so much cultural diversity, such as the Basques, the Catalans, the Galicians, the Andalusians … Wherever you go you find something interesting. Also, the people in Spain are very nice and welcoming. It is impossible not to fall in love with this country.

BLADE: However, you also fell in love with your current husband …

SALAZAR: Fernando and I met online. I had already planned to go to Barcelona and, once there, we met. That was at the end of 2012 and since then we started seeing each other almost every day. It was very nice. After a few months, we moved in together. On Aug. 4, 2017, we got legally married here in Barcelona. We have been a couple for eight years and married for three years.

BLADE: Do you feel part of the LGBTQ community in Spain?

SALAZAR: I am openly gay and although I am not involved in LGBTQ organizations today, when I lived in Victorville we founded the High Desert Equality, a group for socio-cultural activities, in February 2009 with some friends. Here in Spain, especially due to lack of time, I do not belong to any organization, but I do not rule out doing it soon.

BLADE: Where does your passion for cooking come from?

SALAZAR: I always liked cooking, but before I only did it more out of necessity than pleasure. For about 15 years now I started to try out new recipes and cook with different mixtures of flavor and textures, but always focusing on the traditional. In my travels — I love to travel — I have learned a lot from different gastronomic cultures and I have always tried to capture them in my dishes. This has given me more breadth when it comes to cooking. I love that my friends enjoy something that I have cooked.

BLADE: Why did you decide to join “MasterChef”?

SALAZAR: The first time I saw “MasterChef” was in 2014 and I liked it, but I couldn’t follow it due to schedule issues. In 2015, I changed my work schedule so I could watch it in full. I was so impressed that I started looking for the recipes they made and practiced them at home. I remember at first I told Fernando that someday I was going to become part of that program. I was very excited just thinking about everything I would learn. Last year, while we were watching the edition of MasterChef Celebrity I saw that they announced MasterChef was still looking for new contestants. I opened the computer and filled out the application. And after a tough selection process, here I am!

BLADE: How have you felt so far in the contest?

SALAZAR: The talent show is very difficult, but I love it. If you ask me if I recommend it, I say 1,000 times yes. Not only because of what you learn, but also because of how all the people on the show treat me: The jury, the production workers, the cameras, the makeup artists, the hair stylists … It has been a wonderful experience.

BLADE: What have been your most difficult moments so far on the show?

SALAZAR: I think that the most difficult thing for me is living with my colleagues. I’ve never been in an environment with people so different from me, and look, I’m from Los Angeles!

BLADE: Do you think that being a foreigner and gay has put you in a different position in relation to your peers?

SALAZAR: Before they selected me among the last 50 contestants, my friends said I would have more opportunities because I was gay and Latino. I almost believed it, but when I saw that in the last tryout the LGBTQ community was already very well represented, I thought, “Will I be selected for being a foreigner?” But they also called other people from different countries like Cuba, Belgium, China, Morocco, so I don’t think being a foreigner or gay had anything to do with it, it was my kitchen. 

Shine Iberia, the production company that produces “MasterChef Spain” and that is part of the international Endemol Shine Group, told the Blade that the inclusion of LGBTQ people in their productions is unequivocal. Successful programs in Spain, such as “MasterChef”or “Maestros de la Costura” in episode after episode promote the visibility and normalization of all groups and of course the LGBTQ community, showing through their talent shows what people are like regardless of their origin or option.

“It is worth noting the recent presence of Michael in this eighth season of MasterChef, a season in which Saray, a transgender Roma woman who has shared kitchens with Michael and the other 15 applicants, has also taken part,” said Shine Iberia.

BLADE: What has the program taught you so far, professionally and personally?

SALAZAR: Thanks to “MasterChef” I am perfecting myself in the things I already did. I am also learning techniques that alone would have been very difficult. Personally, I tell you that now I appreciate more time with my partner and my friends, details that before did not give much importance, now I value them more.

BLADE: How much of its roots are in your dishes?

SALAZAR: A lot. We in California are lucky to have a lot of Mexican influence, which at the same time has a lot to do with Spanish food. In the United States, we grow with a wide variety of foods from all over the world. All that influence has helped me to improvise faster than the rest of my teammates in the different tests.

BLADE: How about the relationship with the judges and the rest of the teammates?

SALAZAR: When we are not taping, you have the opportunity to chat with the judges and for me they are very close and charming people. I personally have gotten along very well with all three, but I must admit that Samantha Vallejo-Nágera has left the best impression on me. As for my colleagues; I have more relationship with Teresa, Adrienne, Sito and Mónica.

BLADE: How do you feel during the taping? What feelings do you experience?

SALAZAR: There is a whirlwind of emotions on and off the set. It is a combination of stress, nerves and adrenaline. I have a better time during the tapings. Everyone treats us very well, from the cleaners to the managers. It is another world! I love it.

Michael Salazar (Photo courtesy of RTVE)

BLADE: How has the Spanish public received it?

SALAZAR: Very good. On social media networks, they do not stop supporting me. Since I came to Spain for the first time as a tourist and until now I have felt at home. The people here are very welcoming and make you feel like one of them. They make me feel very loved.

BLADE: What are your biggest aspirations in the culinary world?

SALAZAR: I have always dreamed of having my own business related to cooking. I thought about setting up a small restaurant that would only be open in the evening. But already with the experience I have I know that the best thing for me would be a catering service. In fact, I am in contact with my colleague Teresa to, in the not too distant future, will be able to start something here in Barcelona. Who knows if in the future it can open a subsidiary in Los Angeles or in Washington, D.C.

BLADE: What would it mean for you to get the “MasterChef Spain” trophy?

SALAZAR: Winning the title of “MasterChef Spain” not only represents money or fame, it is also having achieved one more of my goals. The opportunity to study at the Basque Culinary Center is something you would never have imagined. Everything you could learn and the experience you would gain … it would be great.

BLADE: Have you returned to the United States?

SALAZAR: Yes. Last summer, Fernando and I went for a walk and visited my family and friends. We were in Orlando, San Francisco, Long Beach (of course), Hollywood, Las Vegas, and other cities. We were there for three weeks and, of course, we didn’t have enough time to see everything we wanted. We are thinking of taking another trip through places that we do not know, such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Cleveland or New York and many others.

BLADE: What ties do you have with California and the U.S.?

SALAZAR: I have many friends in California with whom we maintain contact and also my host father. In Long Beach, I have an aunt who I love very much. And in Florida I have my sister who I adore. America will always be my home. I am and will continue to be American. I have spoken to my husband that in the future, when we are retired, we could go live in Cocoa Beach. (Fla.).

From right: Michael Salazar with his husband, Fernando Frias, in Los Angeles (Photo courtesy of Michael Salazar)
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