“I’m Gonna Be Me, This Is Who I Am”

How cookie master Rick Martinez mixes culinary skill with queer fearlessness, all with perfectly painted nails.

Rick Martinez in a beautiful kitchen, smiling over a casserole in a red dish.
Rick Martinez. Courtesy of Rick Martinez

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

As we squeeze our plates onto a small two top by the café’s front window, Rick Martinez compliments my hastily painted nails. I’d attempted a chrome look with drug-store polish (fine, but already chipping at the edges). He gets gel manicures, he says, because they stay pristine despite all he puts them through in his cooking—and he cooks a lot, between filming for Bon Appétit’s growing video empire and working on his first cookbook, an exploration of food across Mexico. The higher-end choice works: Today his nails are crisp, blue-lacquered, and seemingly untouched. And they’re not only beautiful; they’re an emblem of what first drew me to Martinez—his unabashed queerness.

Martinez is gay and Mexican American and Texan, and when he appears in videos, he wears his identities as proudly as he does his brightly colored, busy-print shirts, always unbuttoned. This is what I love about Martinez: He’s authentic to himself first and foremost, putting it all in the work. And, though it’s not his primary goal, this authenticity carves out space for queer people of color in an industry that tends to favor the straight and the white.

Martinez is sort of famous now, not least because his tie-dyed Christmas cookies adorn Bon Appétit’s December issue. He has a fanbase of viewers hungry to find parts of themselves reflected in a celebrity chef. The notoriety is not something he expected. “I literally got up on Saturday, looked like shit, I was just gonna go to Foodtown to buy peanut butter,” he told me.
“This guy taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘I love what you do, I love watching your videos.’ Then he just walked away. It’s very surreal.”

Fans are vocal about their admiration for Martinez online, too. “Omg omg I love this so much it’s so rare for me to find a video about food from El Salvador,” one person commented on Rick’s pupusa-making video. On another, where Martinez bakes his favorite apple pie, one commenter said, “Hoping to one day be half as comfortable in my own skin as Rick is in his. Living his best buttonless life.”

While much of his appeal is in the minority representation he brings to the table, Martinez has always been in it first for the food. Before working as a senior editor at Bon Appétit (where he still works on a freelance basis), he cooked behind the scenes for the likes of Bobby Flay, Ina Garten, and the Iron Chef series. He was the guy in the back kitchen who made sure the cinnamon rolls looked hot and gooey when the cameras were ready for them.

Cooking, for Martinez, is about authenticity as well. Not that his food needs to be true to its source material—he’s aware of his deviations from tradition, especially in the Mexican food champions. Rather, he’s after a more elusive sort of authenticity of perspective. The food he makes for himself and for the camera is unapologetically Rick Martinez—full of complex Mexican American flavor, queer, and, above all else, delicious. As a queer person myself, I recognize the daily struggle between authenticity to oneself and to an image that will be perceived as normal or likable. It’s a line that only becomes more complex when someone is in the public eye.

Martinez still grapples with this, even after years of practice. In the past, when he shot videos at the Food Network, for example, he was intimately aware of the network’s more conservative viewership, something he doesn’t worry about at Bon Appétit.

“I did one video for them with the nails and the comments were just horrible,” he tells me. “To their credit, the producers have always said they want me to be me. But I made a decision that if someone is going to dislike the content, I would prefer them to dislike it because of the food and not because of me. And so I took the polish off.”

Martinez describes his move to Bon Appétit as the best opportunity of his career—not just for the expanded audience, but because everyone there is just being themselves. When he first started filming videos, he initially questioned how he represented himself, even in such a welcoming environment: “You contemplate—I mean, my nails … you think, ‘Am I going to do this, or am I not going to do this?’ ” he recalled. “Am I distracting from the video, from the content? Am I gonna lose viewers for my nails, or for being too gay, or showing too much chest, or whatever? In the end I was just like I’m gonna be me, this is who I am.”

Martinez refuses to conform to traditional depictions of masculinity and heterosexuality. All audiences are welcome, but in watching his videos, they will need to be willing to appreciate his queer expression as much as they do his food.

Once at Bon Appétit, he put off reading the comments under his videos in the pursuit of blissful ignorance, at the suggestion of some of his fellow staff members—too many trolls, they said. But then he did “the cookie video” (brown-butter chocolate chip toffee ones that went viral last year—the video has now amassed more than 1 million views) and peeked at the comments.

“I was like, ‘Holy fuck.’ People were so nice,” he tells me. “Granted there were some trolls, but the people that like me really like me. And they will destroy trolls.”

At the time, he didn’t really understand the dynamic; he thought perhaps it came down to his penchant for instructiveness or people generally just enjoying his food. But now he understands it better: Viewers like me related to Martinez in ways we just couldn’t with anyone else making food videos.

The nails are definitely a big point of connection: “I’ve had so many guys reach out to me through DM or social—like, ‘I work at this really conservative company in Alabama and I’ve always wanted to paint my nails, but I’ve been too scared,’ ” Martinez shared. “ ‘And I saw your videos and painted my nails and nothing happened. Thank you.’ Or people in Mexico. This guy sent me a picture of him painting his nails at this bar in Guadalajara. Or Mexican American queers, like this kid in California reached out to say, ‘I love to cook and I’m gay and there are no Latinos in food media. Thank you for representing both.’ ”

This intersection is where Martinez thrives. Now he leaves nothing of himself behind in his career—not always because it’s what’s most comfortable for him, but because this kind of authenticity to himself has a direct impact on his viewers around the world. When he prepares food on camera, he’s not setting out to be a voice of authority on what it’s like to be queer or to be Mexican American. Rather, he’s proving to viewers that the places where these identities meet is valid, valuable, and delicious.