Ryan Robles and Joshua Wilder Oakley are fully immersed in the world of food and hospitality in San Francisco. Ryan works in PR and is an experienced event producer for clubs, spirits companies and restaurants. He recently branched out and is starting to do his own PR work as well. Joshua runs Tango & Stache, a pop-up serving high-end yet approachable bar food with delectables like Wild Turkey 101 Duck Fat Nachos, Tostadas, and Rum Milk Punch Tacos at popular watering holes around town, including Rye. The two live in Potrero Hill and attend work industry events such as SF Chefs and the San Francisco Magazine Best of the Bay party at the Metreon. SF Chefs is an annual series of events that Ryan helped plan through his work as a Senior Account Manager for Andrew Freeman & Co..
Before working at Andrew Freeman, Ryan created a successful event and catering program at the now shuttered Bar Bambino restaurant in the Mission. Joshua launched Tango & Stache after a leg injury in 2012–more on the name in a bit. The classically trained chef has cooked at Michael Mina, Gary Danko and Bar Bambino. He now serves his own brand of “spirited soul food,” inspired by his favorite cocktails. Joshua uses his close relationships with local farms and purveyors to make his salsas, salads, slaws and gremolatas which are used to top hand-press bacon fat tortillas and tostadas. Joshua’s overall goal is:
“to reconnect people with the source of their food, teach them that food does not have to be fancy to be good, and to bring back an honest approach to how it is prepared.”
June is LGBT Pride Month and there is so much energy focused on equal rights for the LGBT community right now, especially in California. The Supreme Court ruled on Prop 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban this week as well as DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. Many professions have been slow to open the closet doors but are gradually yielding to the pressure and challenging homophobia within their systems. With that in mind, I asked Ryan and Joshua about their personal and professional experiences being gay men in the interconnected food & PR worlds. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: Tell me about the name Tango & Stache.
Ryan: It’s a play on the Sly Stallone movie, Tango & Cash. Ben Robert was the other sous chef at Bar Bambino with Joshua and they called each other Tango & Cash. With the pop-up, I’m Tango & Josh is Stache.
Ryan: We’ve been friends with them for years and our friendship was developed prior to us being a huge part of the industry. It kind of opens the door to meet other people from the industry in a non-industry way. When you think about community, there’s the community of hospitality: the chefs, and then the bar & spirits community. Essentially it’s just one big community, and everybody bounces ideas off each other.
Bay Area Bites: How did you two meet? How long have you been together?
Ryan: I met Josh in 2007 while getting my haircut. I had just got back from living in Australia for a year, and was about cut off the dreadlocks I had for 15 years (I know!). We met briefly that day, but became friends after. I then got him a job as sous chef at Bar Bambino, where I was also working as their Event Director and Catering Manager. We became best friends quickly, and the rest is history. We’ve been together for about 3 years, but it feels longer since we’ve been friends for so many years.
Joshua: I met Ryan the day he cut off all his dreadlocks. The guy I was dating at the time happened to be his hairdresser and we became fast friends. After a friendship that spanned about three years, Ryan helped me get a job at a restaurant that he was working at, where our friendship developed as we worked side by side working events and parties. We have been together for almost three years now.
Bay Area Bites: You both work around food & hospitality folks. What is that like and how do you support each other at home and in life?
Ryan: I love it because it’s a chance for us to work together. That’s how our relationship started, and I can’t imagine it any other way. At times our work can feel overindulgent, but we both love what we do so much. We tend to go out for dinner and cocktails — A LOT. Sometimes it’s for events, and other times it’s just to check out a new spot or revisit a place we love. When we’re at home, it’s not much different — we entertain a lot.
Being in the industry our jobs can demand a lot of energy and time. It’s really important for both of us to understand that and support one another during those moments, whether it be Josh showing up at an event or a dinner I’m involved with, or me being by his side (being the Tango in Tango & Stache) at one of his multiple weekly pop-ups, like at Rye on Wednesday or Thursday.
With that said, it’s also important for us to separate ourselves from work when we are alone together. Family time with Little Edie (our white pit-lab mix) is a must when we’re done with work. I’m so thankful for the industry we work in, but I’m even more thankful for the life Josh and I have built together.
Joshua: I wouldn’t want to ever do anything else, and the fact that I get to work side-by-side with my partner makes it even better. Our relationship began in this industry, and in some ways that makes it easier. We both have such a better understanding of the pressures we are both under.
Bay Area Bites: What is your experience with regard to homophobia and LGBT acceptance within the culinary world that you work in?
Ryan: Quite honestly, this industry/community has been, and is, very accepting. I haven’t experienced or noticed any blatant homophobia in my line of work. Many people in our industry our openly gay.
Joshua: Growing up in the underbelly of the San Francisco food scene you either become tough as nails or you won’t last. There is a lot of focus, and rightfully so, on how hard it is for women to come up in this industry. But there is hardly anything said about how equally hard it is to be gay and work in such a macho male driven industry. People are often flabbergasted when I relay how hard it was, and how much I had to put up with to make it to where I am now. Everyone assumes that because this is San Francisco everyone is automatically accepting of everything, and that may be true outside of the kitchen, but not in it. Like the few really talented women I have worked with on the lines, I endured so much more harassing and taunting than the average line cook. Most kitchens are made up of motley crews to say the least, and there is a tremendous amount of camaraderie, generally speaking, but as a gay man, it is so much harder to break into that and be accepted. I have often joked that being a gay line cook is like suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome.” You’re on a line next to people you know better than your own family, who are the biggest jerks, and give you so much grief, but you’re held captive by the fact that despite everything you are going through, you’re still learning, and growing and that is what makes it all worth it.
That is why I would do it all over again. It is hard enough to become a good line cook, and when you’re a gay man, it can be so much harder. I see why I don’t know too many others. I think the only reason I survived is because I spent four years in the Army, and that conditioned me to keep my head down and go as fast as I could.
Bay Area Bites: What was it like for you coming out professionally? When did you do it? What was your job at the time? Have you noticed a change over time?
Ryan: I’ve never felt the need to officially come out at work, because my sexuality doesn’t totally define me. It’s a huge part of who I am, but it’s not the only part. I’m very open about being gay, and don’t hide it — I never have. I’m very proud of who I am.
Joshua: I never really did come out professionally, so to speak. My first job out of culinary school was opening Michael Mina when it was at the St Francis hotel. And I was already out. At the time, I was determined that I wouldn’t be defined by my sexuality, I wanted to cook and I was hungry to learn. Having spent four years in the Army, I knew that people’s sexuality can become the only thing some people see, and I wanted to be defined by what I could do, not who I loved. So when I entered my first job, I remember thinking I would try and be a more reserved and quiet version of myself, but not in the closet. That lasted all of about two days. We worked so long and so hard, and when you spend that much time with anybody you get to know each other really well. In some ways it was so similar to the Army, except that the only difference was in the Army, everyone knew, but it wasn’t discussed, and in the kitchen, everyone knew, and it seemed to be the only topic anyone wanted to actually talk about. I don’t know if it has really changed much either, it has been a while since I have worked a line at any restaurant.
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite places to eat and drink?
Ryan: I love so many places in San Francisco. We love barbacco because we always know our dinner will be perfect. I love Hog & Rocks because Robin’s cooking is so incredibly special, and Michael’s drinks and cocktail knowledge always impress the hell out of me. We love Rye, because their staff is so awesome. You can always find me there at least once during the week sipping on a Negroni or Sbagliato — with a big smile on my face. I will miss BIG, and until they closed that was one of our regular weeknight haunts. Trick Dog is doing some amazing things with their cocktail program and menu. We try to make it there as much as we can. We love those boys so much. I love Tradition for their beautiful cocktails and amazing barrel-aging program. ICHI Sushi is best sushi in the city — hands down. I also love the sexy bar at Gitane — their wine list is killer. We also often find ourselves at A.Q. — everything about that restaurant always makes me happy.
Joshua: I don’t believe that you have to spend a ton of money to get good food, you can, but it’s not necessary. I love going to Vallarta for street tacos, La Palma for chilaquiles, I love everything about Trick Dog, you can’t go wrong at Local’s Corner either, they have one of the most charming brunches in town. AQ has never failed me, I still dream about the pork chop with roasted strawberries. La Ciccia finally made me a believer of tripe. The list could go on and on. Rye is my bar of choice, and I will never forget BIG. Food is my life and I am always looking for the next place or thing to try.
Bay Area Bites: How do you celebrate Pride Month? Personally? Professionally?
Ryan: You can always find us on Pride Saturday at Dolores Park. That is my favorite part of the weekend. The energy on that day, in particular, is contagious. As I get older, Pride is more about spending time with people I love and remembering those who are no longer with us — and being thankful for the road they paved for us. Our lives would not be the same without their courage.
Joshua: As I get older it becomes less about the party and more about honoring what it has taken from those before us so that I can walk down the street and hold my partners hand and be safe. It is a time to celebrate the work of those before us, and a reminder of how much more we have to fight for. That being said, my favorite part of Pride weekend is Saturday in Dolores Park.