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What’s Cookin’, Good Lookin’?
by Scout Durwood
July 10, 2008
Get out your knife and fork, reality TV fans: Top Chef Season 3 kicks off this Wednesday the 13th at 10 p.m. on Bravo. This season offers up a full plate of slicers and dicers, including the southern-born, self-taught, South Beach, soul-food specialist—did we mention lesbian?—Sandee Birdsong. Currently the executive chef of Tantra, a three star eastern-inspired Miami restaurant with a reputation for their young, creative chefs, Sandee fell in love with fine dining and women right almost simultaneously.

Growing up, Sandee never expected to find herself where she is today. “My mother said when I left the house I couldn’t boil water,” Sandee says, “so [my love of cooking] didn’t come from childhood.” Sandee insists that it was her first woman-woman relationship that taught her to appreciate the beauty of a delicate palate; it was not until she met her first—and to date only—girlfriend that Sandee began to develop her culinary expertise.

With a shared love of fine dining, and after years of eating out, Sandee decided she could do better, and set out to become a chef in her own right. She started by cooking more at home, which led to catering events, and eventually knocking on Tantra’s door where she got a job as a line cook. She held the position for just over two weeks before she was promoted to manager, and six weeks after that found herself with the title of top chef. Under Sandee, Tantra has received a four-diamond award for each of the past three years, an accomplishment unique to Sandee’s reign as master of the kitchen.

Forsaking the formality of culinary school, Sandee credits her mother as her greatest source of inspiration, who, she says, “was a fabulous cook. Anything I want to learn I could learn from her.” Now, Sandee specializes in food with the same southern influence, including her favorite often-overlooked delicacy, grilled watermelon.

What Sandee’s affair as a chef lacks in experience, it more than makes up for in soul. After years of working various jobs from accounting to internet consulting, Sandee decided it was time to shake things up with a career shift and took a year off to decide just what that leap would be. In the end, she says, it came down to two possible choices: “I was either going to be a chef or a glass blower. I do both,” eventually siding with Teflon and steel, over glass.

The rest, as they say, is reality TV. With only two months of professional experience in the restaurant business, Sandee admits to learning the ins and outs of a successful kitchen the hard way. “There was a lot of trial and error,” she laughs, but credits this trial by fire at Tantra as being somewhat of an advantage on Top Chef. Used to a somewhat chaotic environment, and certainly used to being in command, the fast-paced competitive nature of Top Chef was a familiar challenge.

For now, though, it’s back to her regularly scheduled programming at Tantra, not to mention a slew of extracurriculars. Always one for adventure, and never a shy entrepreneur, Sandee boasts, “I really do live day to day, which is really kind of funny considering I have five businesses and fifteen hobbies.” Sandee is an active member of the LBGT community, the owner of She magazine, and founder of gayberhood.com.

The out and proud chef claims her birth into the queer world was as accidental a conception as her career move to become a chef.

“It’s a funny story,” she says. “My husband wanted me to have relationship with another woman for his pleasure. I told him, no, for eight years. I told him I didn’t want to, and I didn’t.” That is, until her flirtatious hairdresser invited her to a dinner party where she met the woman who would become her partner of twelve years and counting.

Sandee soon ended her nine-year marriage on excellent terms—“we’re still great friends. We were great friends when we got married”—and has never looked back. “I got involved with [the queer] scene immediately,” she says, finding it a significantly better fit than the straight world. “Immediately I fit in with everybody in the gay community. It felt like home,” she says.

Hailing from a small island off the coast of Georgia, St. Island, Sandee attributes the lack of a queer vocabulary growing-up to her delayed coming out, not that it came as a much of a surprise to the self-described tomboy who admits as a child, “I used to wear my brother’s underwear.” Growing up, she says, she was taught to assume the trajectory of heterosexual marriage and kids—Sandee does not currently have any children, though she is entertaining the notion of adopting and is a proud pet-owner—which is exactly what attempted to do. Upon exposure to the gay community, however, Sandee insists upon love at first sight, calling her first two years in a same-sex relationship “like I just walked into my first candy store,” quickly adding, “but now it’s down to business.”

Sandee intends to remain involved with LBGT affairs, but is always on the look out for life’s next great adventure. Though happy in her current position, Sandee admits that tantric longevity is not her strong suit. She puts opening her own restaurant as a possible venture, adding, “I have no clue what’s next. I do get bored easily,” insisting that she is careful never to let work take over too much of her life. Sweetly southern at heart, Sandee is adamant about saving time for vacation and the beach.

As to whether or not this lesbian will come out on Top, we’ll just have to tune in to find out. Bottoms up!
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