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COVID upended Himitsu founder’s life — so she pivoted

Finding power as an out lesbian entrepreneur

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Himitsu, gay news, Washington Blade
Carlie Steiner co-founded the award-winning and highly creative Himitsu. (Photo courtesy Steiner)

Perhaps no other industry has changed more from the pandemic than the restaurant industry – and few other local restaurateurs made bigger life changes from the pandemic than Carlie Steiner. 

In 2016 and barely into her mid-20s, Steiner co-founded the award-winning and highly creative Himitsu, one of D.C.’s most lauded restaurants. Two additional eateries and five years later, Steiner has left the restaurant world.

 “COVID didn’t change my plans,” she says. “It changed my entire life.”

In early 2020, Steiner was running Pom Pom (which replaced Himitsu after co-owner Kevin Tien left to pursue his own projects) as well as Mexican restaurant Dos Mamis (with co-owner Anna Bran-Leis), located directly across the street from Pom Pom. She had been named 30 Under 30 by Forbes, and Himitsu was listed in Bon Appétit’s 50 Best New Restaurants list and won Eater’s Restaurant of the Year in 2017. Steiner was recognized as a leader behind the bar and for her work in hiring and supporting LGBTQ employees.

Yet Steiner now admits that “being ‘the best’ consumed me, to my detriment. I lost myself over the past few years and was feeling incredibly disconnected. I’m not sure I could even see it at the time. I would still be there, had this pandemic never happened, miserable, and over-committing to everything. I would have never left the industry.”

When Pom Pom shuttered due to pandemic restrictions, Steiner turned the space into a makeshift grocery. Realizing that she couldn’t reopen for normal business, Steiner decided to formally close Pom Pom in May. She launched Seco Cocktails, an online shop that sold wine and liquor bundles. Steiner soon began to offer virtual cocktail classes through Seco Cocktails as well. The move to virtual-only work brought clarity to her career, Steiner says, and negated the need to be physically present at the restaurants. She and her partner decided that their next move would be to leave D.C. altogether, settling in nearby Annapolis in a new home. 

Even virtually, “I find human connection essential, and there is no more significant way to gain human connection than through the art of food and beverage,” she says.

But the restaurant industry ended up being an enormous challenge. “You can’t divorce food from politics and culture, and I always wanted to keep high standards. Though I got disheartened by the strict mindset of being a restaurateur, I feel like I can do anything now.”

Steiner describes years of microaggression, misogyny, homophobia, and other similar experiences as a woman and a lesbian in the industry. “People would walk into the restaurant and go to the first man they saw, assuming I wasn’t the owner,” she says. 

In several business meetings, she notes different treatment for being a lesbian, which has felt empowering. “During these meetings, men treat me differently than other women. At the same time, I have a huge passing privilege about being gay.”

“It’s a privilege to be straight-passing, giving me the option to disclose my sexuality when it suits me and hide it when it doesn’t. For these reasons alone, I feel being gay has given me strength, resilience, and power.”

Moving out of the day-to-day restaurant work, Steiner has “fallen in love with the education process. I can be part of other people’s success and education, and help empower minorities and women.”

Her business Seco Cocktails “makes the cocktail experience as accessible as possible for all kinds of enthusiasts,” she says. Right now, Steiner teaches public classes ($30) on a diversity of course themes, from Aperitifs and Digestifs to Intro to Tiki. She also offers small private classes for birthdays or other events, and sells funky wall prints and visuals with her own recipes ($8).

The pandemic “changed the way I think, how I spend my time, the people I spend with whom I spend it.”

“At the time, I was devastated to lose everything for which I had worked my whole life. Now, I see that it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”

Blade-Inspired Cocktail Recipe by Carlie Steiner

Name: The New Normal

2 oz Civic Vodka from Republic Restoratives (lesbian-owned)

2 dashes angostura bitters

2 sprigs of mint

1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice

0.75 oz honey syrup (a 3:1 ratio of honey to water)

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Crazy Aunt Helen’s to host ‘Pride-a-palooza’

Barracks Row restaurant celebrating all month long

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Crazy Aunt Helen’s ‘serves American comfort food with a southern slant.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Shane Mayson’s restaurant is as colorful as his language. His multi-hued American eatery Crazy Aunt Helen’s debuted last July on Barracks Row, just a few days after Pride concluded. But as Pride is 365, this restaurant has spent its first year with flair and fanfare, and this June, Mayson, who identifies as gay, isn’t holding back.

“I LOVE PRIDE MONTH,” Mayson wrote (caps are his). “I love everything we have at Crazy Aunt Helen’s for Pride. Check out our events and get blown away,” he says.

This isn’t Mayson’s first Pride – but it is his first as owner of Crazy Aunt Helen’s, a delightfully fabulous neighborhood restaurant in Barracks Row.  

Thus far in June, Mayson has already held comedy shows, book readings, a ladies’ tea dance, play readings, bingo, and a Story District event. Coming up on June 25, to end Pride month with even more color, is “Pride-a-palooza,” featuring a host of drag queens, food, drinks, prizes, and plenty of surprises that MayD.C. Mayor Muriel Bowserson has been waiting an entire year to showcase.

Crazy Aunt Helen’s “serves American comfort food with a southern slant,” explains Mayson. Taking over the space of Irish pub Finn McCool’s, Crazy Aunt Helen’s spreads over two floors, plus a patio and streatery. The interior is wildly bright: a Prince-esque purple host stand and staircase welcome guests, and a highlighter-green wooden banquette runs the length of the dining room. A set of wicker chairs and flower-print cushions recall that southern influence.

Mayson enlisted Pixie Windsor – the very same of eponymous Miss Pixie’s – to design the restaurant (the two have been friends for years). “Pixie has a way with creating fabulous comfortable spaces,” Mayson says. 

Windsor and Mayson partnered to craft the whimsical aesthetic, from the brilliant paint job to a bright-pink neon sign.

Mayson is quick to note that his Aunt Helen “was charming, warm, and funny, with an amazing laugh, and I wanted my restaurant to have that same feeling,” he says. “I wanted our guests to feel like they are getting a big’ol hug each time they walk in the doors.” 

The menu is just as homey and eclectic. Mayson waxes poetic about the fried green tomatoes, the chicken fried steak smothered in chicken sausage gravy, and a Jewish-style braised brisket. Yet many of the dishes are also vegan and vegetarian, like the “fab” cakes made of soy and mushroom and a vegan steak.

As for the drinks, Mayson says that the “signature cocktails are also seasonally driven, and I only use local distilleries like Republic Restoratives, another LGBTQIA business.” There’s also a list of beer, wine, and zero-proof drinks.

Mayson has been in the restaurant business since he moved to D.C. in 1984, working first at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, and most recently as director of business development for the restaurant group of the highly lauded restaurant industry leader, and lesbian, Jamie Leeds.

Mayson is using Pride this year as Crazy Aunt Helen’s coming out, both as a restaurant and a safe space. “I can say that I have had experiences in my life where I didn’t feel welcomed places. The staff and I work very hard to make sure everyone who walks into Crazy Aunt Helen’s feels welcome,” he says.

“I find it’s the small things that build to allow folks to feel safe,” he notes. There’s no required uniform, allowing staff to dress however they feel most comfortable. Mayson also makes an effort to support local LGBTQ artists and performers, giving them space in the second-floor Peacock Room to share their talents.

To that end, Mayson is offering The Rainbow Theatre Project, a theater group that has been dark since pandemic closings, a home until they are back up and running. During June, they performed four staged readings from four LGBTQ playwrights. “I can’t wait to have the Peacock Room buzzing with entertainment every night of the week and to hear all the people laughing and enjoying the food, each other and the show,” Mayson says.

Mayson’s goal at Crazy Aunt Helen’s is twofold: create a space “that’s welcoming and nourishing to both our bellies and our spirits.”

Shane Mayson (Photo courtesy of Mayson)

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Relish Market offers a space for wellness

Lesbian entrepreneur a supporter of mission-driven brands

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Stephanie Freeman and daughter Alexia Yates own Relish Market. (Photo by Kea Dupree)

From urban farmer to wellness provider, Stephanie Freeman has been a caregiver to the earth and to her customers for more than a decade. Freeman, who identifies as lesbian, owns Relish Market with her daughter, Alexia Yates. Located in Brentwood, Md., Relish offers housemade drinks, herb and spice mixes, condiments, wellness products, and a host of proudly D.C.-made products.

Freeman founded Relish Market in 2018 and opened a storefront inside of miXt Food Hall in October 2019 upon the inauguration of the hall. (miXt co-hosted the Arts, Beats, and Eats festival in May, which featured several LGBTQ artists.)

Freeman began in the food industry in earnest in 2013 as an urban farmer and food entrepreneur selling her hot sauce and condiment brand, Pepperly Love, at farmer’s markets and events throughout the area. Her daughter Yates focuses on the catering and custom beverage aspects of Relish. With a background as a chef, she brings experience and creativity to the goods at Relish.

Although Freeman came from the corporate world, she grew up in a home with a big, productive garden. She has cherished memories of canning produce with her grandfather.

Among its offerings, Relish may be best known for its beverages. It serves a rainbow’s worth of smoothies: everything from strawberry-banana to peanut butter, kale, and whey. The shop offers more than 20 add-ons to boost the drinks, including new superfoods like sea moss gel and black seed oil. There’s also a range of juices and proprietary tea mixes like elderberry echinacea chai. All the options are made in house, just like her own spice and herb blends: she’s packed everything from butterfly pea flowers to valerian root to adobo lime spice mix.

When the opportunity came up to open the marketplace within MiXt, Freeman jumped at the occasion. The food hall allowed her to further express her creativity and provided her with a platform to showcase her talents – and put her in front of a bigger, broader audience, but also one that seeks to make close connections.

“I’m proud,” she says,” because there aren’t so many places for healthy choices where customers can ask questions while also supporting local.”

Having opened at the end of 2019, Relish soon had to confront pandemic restrictions. While customers couldn’t stay to eat at MiXt and many vendors were closed, Relish was able to stay open. It was during this challenging period that Freeman leaned in to her wellness background.

The gray of the pandemic cloud therefore offered something of a silver lining. Relish became a community space when so many other vendors and food establishments were shuttered. It was through these in-person interactions that Freeman has found her calling.

Freeman has embraced her role as caregiver and supporter of mission-driven brands. She stocks products from more than 20 local vendors in addition to her own in-house-crafted products. Being in front of so many customers, she’s proud to show that people like her can create wholesome, welcoming spaces.

“People see the shop as more than just selling food, but create a space for wellness,” she says.

Referring to other LGBTQ people in the food space, she says that the community is “often underrepresented and underreported on.” She also notes her ability to “pass” as a straight Black woman unless she specifically speaks about her identity. She therefore ensures to recognize others who need that recognition. When sourcing her products, she always looks to organizations that are supportive. She has also participated in Black Pride events in the past.

“I’m excited to show to other would-be entrepreneurs to know that it’s possible here, as an example. I want to emphasize that I certainly had to overcome obstacles, whether its Black, or female, or otherwise, but it is possible, even with the odds stacked against you.”

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At Michele’s, sophisticated cuisine in an inclusive space

Executive sous chef Rachel Bindel brings her full identity to work

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‘Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too,’ says Michele’s executive sous chef Rachel Bindel. (Photo courtesy Michele’s)

Both traditional and chosen, it’s all about family at Michele’s. Michelin-starred chef and owner Matt Baker named the restaurant after his late mother, but it’s also where Executive Sous Chef Rachel Bindel, who identifies as a lesbian, feels at home. 

“I have never felt comfortable enough to be completely open about myself until I met this team,” she says.

As Executive Sous Chef, Bindel oversees daily operations at Michele’s, located in the mission-focused Eaton Hotel. She also plans menus and runs scheduling, sourcing, and events.

The menu at Michele’s is a reflection of Chef Baker’s upbringing in Houston and New Orleans, resulting in a sophisticated, French-American cuisine. Both Baker and Bindel are trained in classical French techniques, and both also spent time cooking and studying in East Asia. The combination of their background and vision come together at the tables at Michele’s.

Bindel also oversees the chef’s table 10-seat, 14-course, Lorraine’s Counter. Each dish is inspired by specific food memories, designed and cooked by the chefs to tell the story of Michele’s and who they are as chefs. 

Driven and creative, Bindel, who grew up in the Mid-Atlantic region, recalls food nostalgia as far back as the wafting aromas of her mother’s baked ziti fresh from the oven. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, steeping herself in French cooking and a specialized focus on Advanced Japanese Techniques.

But it was also while studying at the CIA when she met her wife Marissa. Both were CIA students moonlighting as staff at the on-campus restaurant. A back-of-house romance soon blossomed and they married last month. 

After graduating, the two relocated to Charleston, where Bindel worked at acclaimed restaurant Husk. “While I loved living at the beach, eventually it was time to move back home,” she said. She came to D.C. in June of 2019, landing at Tail Up Goat. 

In September of 2021, she joined 101 Hospitality (the parent company run by Chef Baker that also manages Gravitas and Baker’s Daughter) to run research and development for Michele’s. The restaurant opened last November.

When Bindel graduated, she moved to Charleston in search of the best place to expand her cooking chops. But it was also not the most open space she has encountered in her young career.

In D.C., “a more welcoming city,” she notes, she has the ability to look at both the cooking and the environment for the staff, where everyone can be open about who they are.

“Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too. I don’t have to hide, so I can explore even more who I am as a chef.” 

Her work is on full display for the restaurant’s current seasonal menu. A highlight: the Parisian gnocchi, a flour-based dough pocket in the French style, in place of the traditional potato. The pasta spheres are bathed in a rich Parmesan cream, snuggled by foraged mushrooms and brilliantly green spring peas and asparagus. Other veggie-forward items include a duo of tarte flambee: potato and black truffle, and squash blossom and ricotta. The restaurant also serves fresh French bread, cheese and charcuterie plates, and lofty seafood towers.

“At Michele’s,” she says, “we have created not only a safe space for our diners but also all of our staff. We have adopted a more inclusive standard of service. We no longer serve all females first, and we have eliminated the need for gender pronouns when addressing tables. Being on the management side, I can create space for everyone to be comfortable.”

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