Chef Marcu is breaking ground for the Black trans community in the culinary world and beyond. Photo: Chef Marcu

When Chef Marcu, also known as Marcuz James, first started his private catering business Palate Marcu: International Kitchen in 2019, he felt like he was thrown into a pool of cold water when he agreed to cater for 500 people at the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference. 

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Marcu said. “I was a new business owner; I had to rent a kitchen. I ended up having to hire five people the same day. I was like, ‘can you hold a knife? Do you know how to saute mushrooms?’ It was the funniest thing.”

Marcu got his start cooking in the Philly LGBTQ+ party scene, when folks in the community asked him to cook for different events. During that time, he had to do a lot of things on the fly, learning as he went. Although catering the Trans Wellness Conference was ultimately a success, he plans to focus on catering smaller events that he can put his personal stamp on, he said, and he’s currently rebranding his business to focus on smaller private events, such as bachelorette parties and bar mitzvahs, as well as corporate events like business launches.

“I can add so many more details and so many more pretty pieces of the puzzle to make a more custom experience for people,” Marcu said.

He has been making more of the cuisines that he loves, which include amalgams of Senegalese, Mediterranean, and pan-Asian dishes, as well as Mexican and Caribbean influences.

“That’s been part of my progression over the years, really niching down to where I want to be in the industry,” Marcu said. “Stepping away from really traditional French culinary food and techniques, and branching into more of my culture and lovers of foods that have their own shine as well. People can probably name about two or three African restaurants, but I know so many more that exist. That sucks because that cuisine is so lovely and wonderful; it has quite the influence on our cuisine.”

Although Marcu started his business by himself, he currently has a sous chef and creative director who works alongside him. He hopes to expand the team even further as his business grows and hire other Black trans, queer and/or POC chefs to learn from him and participate in a sort of pilot program “for folks who want to feel safe in a kitchen environment,” Marcu said. He is working toward outsourcing grant writers to acquire funds for such a program, with the possibility of offering college credit for student chefs.

“My entire business model to this day has always been to bridge the gap between Black trans people and the culinary industry,” Marcu said.

Apart from running his cooking business, Marcu works as a community chef for Double Trellis Food Initiative, which provides “culturally appropriate” meals and groceries to individuals experiencing food and housing insecurity, and stocks community fridges throughout Philadelphia neighborhoods. There, Marcu taps into his large-scale cooking chops by helping to produce hundreds of nutritious meals on a weekly basis.

But cooking is not Marcu’s only metier; he is also a seasoned singer who performs at events around Philly, including at William Way LGBT Community Center. Most recently, he sang the song “You Raise Me Up” at the Trans Day of Visibility flag raising event hosted by the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs.

In his music pursuits, Chef Marcu is known as Marcuz James. “I’m cooking here and there a bunch, but I’m also jumping in full-go to my music side, which was my first love,” James said. “I have been pulling myself both ways; do I cook or do I sing or do I do both? How do I cook and sing at the same time? I think I’m an overall entertainer.”

In addition to his culinary pursuits, Chef Marcu is also a talented musician who works under the name, Marcuz James. Photo: Chef Marcu/Marcuz James.

James’s multifaceted nature began as a teenager, when he played multiple musical instruments, participated in sports, got involved in theater clubs and danced. All of that came to a halt, at least for the time being, when he was diagnosed with a curable neurological condition that manifested as fluid on his brain. As such, he experienced issues with his memory, motor skills and vision, he said.

“I had to learn how to walk again,” James said. “I had to learn how to talk and eat again. I lost a lot of my motor abilities. I was temporarily blind. For a year I was really debilitated, in a wheelchair going to physical therapy and occupational therapy. So music had to hold for a second.”

His voice is his main instrument now, and he is currently relearning how to play guitar. After his recovery, James worried that if he pursued music in a more visible way, he wouldn’t have had support as a trans musician. Born in Philadelphia, he spent most of his childhood living in Florida before returning to Philly at age 16.

“I had a whole new world open up to me that I was not aware of,” James said. “I didn’t really know what it looked like to be a trans musician on a major scale. I had known local trans musicians, but I didn’t really know – was I going to be safe?”

When James landed a job at Chipotle post-college, he realized that working in a kitchen didn’t require him to be as visible as a trans person as a career in music would. He didn’t know any big-name trans musicians, actors or performers, so he put his pursuit of music on hold. However, he hit the ground running with his affinity and talent for culinary art. 

“I’m hiding still just a teeny bit from [music],” James said. “Do I pursue music just as hard as I’m pursuing food and culinary and teaching and being part of the representation that I wish I had? Or do I do it both ways, both food and music? I’m still fighting myself with those two.”

Though still a bit apprehensive about being visible musically, as a chef his culinary goals and commitment to fostering safety for Black trans culinary workers requires him to be somewhat visible, he pointed out.

As for what he would say to a young trans person of color who is thinking about pursuing music or culinary arts, James said, “If this is what you want, and it’s all that you think about and dream about, it keeps you up at night, it pains you during your work day–there’s absolutely no way you shouldn’t pursue it.

“My thing is ‘go hard or go harder,’ there is no ‘go home.’ We already have to prove ourselves in some kind of way to the world at large. As a [trans person] who’s pursuing all these things, this is the time that you should take to really hone in on exactly how you want to impact these places or industries. Focus on that and don’t stop ‘til you get the results that you’re looking for.”

Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Gay News. She received her B.A. from Goucher College and her M.A. in journalism from Temple University. 

This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.

Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events.