… audentis fortuna iuvat
Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Heat’s Home & Culinary Capers · Gear | Leica
A timid tree in abscission,
And a hatched egg underside a fallen leaf.
’Tis the gift of life, surely.
But what of the land; fraught with flustered flora?
A detritus there beckons,
Laden with throes. Laced with trauma.
Your iridescence has foes,
And though time doth passes,
It leaves holes.
But the sun rises,
And survival begets spun silk,
Now you’re a cocoon,
But distanced from your ilk.
Where’s your limerence! Incant! Sing!
You’ve finally emerged from chrysalis,
Just flap your wings.
Once a larvae,
And now a lullaby,
I watch you fly,
Into blue blue skies.
Fortune favours the bold. And we favour you. Welcome to The Curatorialist, Heat Laliberté.
[And thanks to my friend Matt, Vancouver’s venerable Dumpling King, for telling me about this beautiful man.]
HB: Let’s start with provenance, as always.
HL: I was born in Humboldt, Saskatchewan and immediately put up for adoption. My birth mother was too young to take care of me, and she already had an eighteen month old at home. So I was put into foster care and my parents adopted me, and subsequently two others—first my sister and then my younger brother. We lived in a blue collar neighbourhood in Saskatoon—small families, neatly kept yards. It doesn’t look like that anymore though, it’s become quite disheveled. Those were the heydays I guess.
HB: Did you ever try to locate your birth parents?
HL: I requested my adoption papers in 2013 and learned that mine was a closed adoption—their names were blacked out. But they’d forgotten to redact a page, so I caught a glimpse of my mother’s name—Darlene Laliberte. I now know she’s Métis, and that my father’s Cree. My mom wanted me to go to a healthy home, and to get the upbringing I deserved. On the other hand, my birth father wanted to pawn me off to his sister.
HB: What do you mean by “pawn”?
HL: The social worker who conducted her interview asked about my father, and my mother didn’t describe him in a positive light—a heavy drinker who’d apparently fathered children from various women. I got the sense that he was perhaps flaky, sort of like “a man about town”.
HB: Did you ever try googling your mother’s name?
HL: I did, but nothing came up. And the strangest thing happened at my farmer’s market some weeks ago—this older woman noticed my last name on my business card and told me she knew a “Darlene” with that last name. I was like “That’s my birth mother!”. Turns out she was my mother’s next door neighbour when my mom was growing up as a kid. I asked her so many questions, desperate for answers, but it’d been 30 years since she’d lived there.
HB: If that’s not serendipity…
HL: I still can’t believe the odds. It’s just crazy. She promised she’d tell her sister to ask around for the next time she went back to visit. Perhaps I’ll finally get to meet her one day, who knows?
HB: Tell me a little about Saskatoon.
HL: We grew up poor, constantly in need of the food bank. When I was in elementary school, I remember our family receiving the Christmas hamper three years in a row. Our neighbours would help us out with groceries. We didn’t even have a phone. It was real financial struggle. Soon after my brother’s adoption, my parents got divorced and it was quite messy. I never got the chance to see my adoptive father until very recently. We’ve since reconnected during a trip back home to Saskatchewan. We visited Wanuskewin Heritage Park, as well as Batoche, learning about how the Métis people came to be. It was very enlightening to dig a little deeper into my heritage.
HB: Was it easier to adopt in those days? Nowadays it’s quite difficult to adopt a single child, let alone three. From what I know, there’s a lot of barriers around it.
HL: This was the early ‘80s, so perhaps a little easier. My adoptive parents were together at the time, which may have indicated a sense of stability, even though my father was a janitor, and my mom was unemployed at the time. I feel like my adoptive mom struggled with her mental health. She had a bad temper. It was a tumultuous, abusive childhood for my siblings and I. Growing up… entering adulthood… it was something we sought professional help for, just to get over years of trauma.
HB: You must’ve been very protective of your siblings.
HL: We depended on one another. My sister and I have the closest bond any siblings could have, just with the stuff we’ve lived through. She was better than my brother and I at dealing with my mom. My brother had a learning disability, as well as a speech impediment, and dealt with things through anger. As for me, I just wanted to get out. I constantly kept running away in my teens. I dreamt of leaving my surroundings every single day. I felt so out of place. Just being a teenager, and at the same time also struggling with my sexuality in this small town… this constant feeling of uneasiness. It was so awkward. Definitely a time I wish I could forget.
HB: What prompted the family move to British Columbia?
HL: My mom called one day to tell me she was moving to Aldergrove, and taking my siblings with her—“Come with us, or stay in Saskatoon”. This was another period I’d ran away after months of fighting with her. I was living with a family I babysat for. It just felt wrong to stay behind. I wasn’t going to abandon my brother and sister.
HB: Why Aldergrove in particular?
HL: My mom got a job as a caretaker, looking after this old man who’d owned a gold mine in Squamish. It was completely isolating, living on this guy’s acreage in the middle of nowhere. We never felt welcome, and that feeling of displacement never left us. Shortly after our move, my mom and I got into another fight and she kicked me out of the house. So I packed up and started living with some friends, eventually moving to Vancouver. I just couldn’t handle my mom and her boyfriend at the time. Looking back now, I feel I may have acted selfishly.
HB: And this was around the time you received the terrible news?
HL: Pretty much. One day my roommate started banging on my door and told me my sister was trying to get in touch with me. I got the phone call—it was my sister, and she said my brother was dead. He was in Aldergrove, walking home from a corner store, and someone had murdered him in an alley behind the Countryside Shopping Centre, a stone’s throw from where my mother was living at the time.
HB: That’s terrible. I’m so sorry for your loss.
HL: It was the worst day of my life. About a year after losing my brother, my mom also passed away. My sister and I travelled to 100 Mile House to organize her funeral. We cooked for everyone who’d come all the way from Saskatoon. We consoled them. Regardless of the relationship I had with my mother growing up, I was devastated. It was a difficult time.
HB: It sounds like a period of reawakening for you.
HL: Very much so. Figuring out who I was—as a person, a human being—starting to realize I was transgender, not even knowing what the correct “word” was. I felt like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. I hated my body. And I’m glad I moved to BC because I was able to come to Vancouver and explore who I was sexually. That, and everything that followed, was definitely the upside to relocating, you know.
HB: Are you comfortable sharing the story of your transition?
HB: Why do you feel it’s important to share?
HL: The more that you’re open and transparent with people, the more positive feedback you’ll receive. When you’re vulnerable with people, and they’re able to see you for who you really are, it creates this deep sense of trust. Or people can relate to you, period. I’d rather be open and honest than in the shadows. I also want to share my story because someone might be going through the same thing, and may find some sense of comfort in it.
HB: When did you first realize something wasn’t quite right?
HL: I was very young—perhaps 4 years of age. I always thought I was a boy. I was trying to pee standing up, it was just weird. Ever since I was really young, I just knew. I started binding my chest at 17, wearing this tensor bandage to flatten out my chest. And that’s mainly the reason I wanted to move out of Saskatoon—it felt homophobic, transphobic, and there were no resources for people like me. So ending up in Vancouver enabled me to explore that part of myself a little bit more. Before that time, I didn’t even know what “transgender” even meant.
HB: What were the first steps you took upon your arrival into Vancouver?
HL: I researched a lot—met with counselors, and spoke to transgender people who’d been through it all. Eventually I ended up seeing a therapist who delved deep into my childhood, and adulthood, to assess whether I was emotionally prepared for a life changing surgery of this nature. They really wanted to help, to make sure I was ready. And after that, I was able to get access to hormone therapy. All the while, I was working really hard in the industry, saving up for top surgery—essentially a double mastectomy—that cost upwards of $10,000.
HB: Perhaps now’s a good time to talk about the infamous DK UNITED.
HL: [Chuckles] That’s when I really became “Heat”. It was my stage name as a travelling member of the local drag king troupe, DK UNITED. I’d watched a couple of drag shows at Lick [now The Pint Public House] and they blew my mind. I’m very shy, but I decided to go up on stage on an amateur night and actually won! I was really determined to put myself out there. It was so much fun, getting to express myself, feeling that confidence.
HB: And you eventually joined the troupe and started touring?
HL: We travelled to New York, Chicago, and even Texas. I’m still very close with them to this day, with one friend in particular. He was trans—he’d undergone hormone therapy and had fully transitioned. It was comforting to meet other people who were transgender, to listen to what they went through. It was then that I realized “This is what I am”.
HB: Was it after your top surgery that you officially came out?
HL: I’d sort of already, but not fully. My close friends at work knew. But once I got top surgery in 2015, I was pretty much like, “Yeah, I’m transgender”. I wasn’t slouching as much… I could finally walk on the beach with a towel around my waist and no longer had to wear that stupid bandage, or even a t-shirt. It was liberating—I finally felt like myself, like what I was meant to be. I also had my hysterectomy last October. Having both those operations would be considered a complete transition.
HB: What was your impression of Vancouver before moving here to start a new life?
HL: I used to visit downtown Vancouver on some weekends—just to stroll down Davie Street and eat at different restaurants. I loved everything about it. It was so much bigger, and I always felt like it had everything to offer. I was constantly daydreaming, like “This is where I’m going to live one day”. Having grown up in Saskatoon, Vancouver, for me, was always the place for possibilities—a chance for a better life.
HB: Vancouver’s home now, but you’ve had such a transient upbringing, much like myself. Does the “no roots” thing ever get to you?
HL: Not at all, in fact I think it’s made me stronger—especially as a chef. Chefs need to adapt, and to pick-up-and-move really quick. I never have a fear of jumping into the unknown. I’ve been there. Countless times.
HB: But you’d never been in a kitchen.
HL: I had this dream of working in a restaurant on Davie Street. So I walked into Moxie’s one day to ask if they had any serving positions available. I knew servers made a lot of tips. Turns out there weren’t any openings, but a kitchen position as an expediter. I took it, and that sparked my interest in cooking. I was responsible for getting all the food out, and eventually rotated through every single station in the restaurant. I worked my way up to supervisor, and even travelled to Ontario to help open some branches with management. And that was really cool, even though it’s Ontario. [Chuckles]
HB: A lot of people cut their teeth in casual establishments like that. Where’d you move onto afterwards?
HL: Although I’ve worked for The Fairmont Pacific Rim, Culinary Capers and The Blue Water Cafe, I got my foundation at the downtown Westin Grand, and went to Vancouver Culinary College during that time to do my apprenticeship through the hotel. I stayed there for 5 years, cooking under JP Filion—my mentor, older brother, best friend, and not to mention, the best man at my upcoming wedding! He taught me pretty much everything I know, and he was always my support through the dark times.
HB: And you both became Chef Olympians.
We travelled together to Brazil and Korea; I was the restaurant chef in Rio during the 2016 Summer Olympics. I cooked for our athletes and sponsors four times a day. It was overwhelming, but such a rewarding experience. I loved Rio, it’d be a dream to live there one day. The culture is so warm and welcoming.
HB: After years of feeling isolated, it sounds like you found a sense of warmth in the kitchen, not to mention your true calling.
HL: It was my salvation, absolutely. I found a family in cooking, in every single restaurant I’ve worked in. You’re able to rely on people for emotional support. Most of us have been through some serious shit and we find a commonality in each other, perhaps of being battered and bruised. But we’re very strong individuals, and with all that we’ve been through, I feel we’re able to forge connections on a different level.
HB: Was your adoptive mom a good cook? Surely your interest in cooking isn’t that arbitrary. What was suppertime like growing up?
HL: I helped my mom cook from time to time—during times we actually got along. She was a great cook, and pretty nurturing, on a good day. Berry picking by the river, making jam, the smell of fried bannock. Even though I was terrified of her growing up, she was the one who taught me how to cook. She was great at making pot roasts using the cheap cuts—crispy pork shoulder, the best liver and onions. And that’s something I’m good at because I learned from her. I have an acquired taste for it all.
HB: Which all channels into your food philosophy.
HL: I guess so. I really don’t like complicating things. I’ve got zero desire to do jellies or foams. I think keeping it simple is the best way to cook. I’m not out there to impress anybody. Properly cooked vegetables, a humble starch, and a juicy piece of meat. It’s what I was exposed to as a child, and the kind of food I’ve come to love. Perhaps it’s a prairie thing as well. I don’t mess around. I’m just about simple, properly cooked food.
HB: It must’ve been interesting switching over to butchery and charcuterie.
HL: It’s a one man show, and it gets lonely, but you’re helming your own station which is an awesome responsibility. Butchery isn’t something to be rushed. You really have to take your time. And that’s what I love about it—you’re not in this constant panic trying to send out a plate in under three minutes. It’s you and the animal, and you need to do your best to honour it because it gave its life for you. I always give thanks before starting to butcher, and I’m never detached from the reality that what I’m working with used to be a living, breathing thing. There’s a welcomed renaissance in butchery these days, and I believe new wave of butchers to be more respectful of the life that’s been taken.
HB: You do things with purpose, and it’s hard to come by these days.
HL: When I’m feeding people I’m providing love, nurturing, and sustenance. Just being of service. Chefs love to be people’s saviours for things. I do feel it gives us purpose, perhaps a sense of self-worth that was previously lacking in our lives. We need to feel relied on—by the people we’re feeding, but more importantly, by each other—and that commands great responsibility.
HB: From what I gather, you’ve had nothing but a great time working in kitchens. Have you ever come across any malignant experiences in your years of cooking?
HL: Years ago, out on our first date with my [current] partner, I came out to her as transgender. She told me she already knew, and I was like “How?!”, to which she replied “A guy at work told me”. I later found out a cook who I’d known since culinary school, who later became a colleague, had told people I was trans on my first day. I hadn’t legally changed my name while attending school, and had to raise my hand to my previous name during a botched roll call. He obviously remembered that. Thankfully, someone went to human resources and reported that he was outing me to people. It’s not respectful, and it can be very unsafe. It puts a target on our back. Someone could be violent, there’s so much crap that transgender people put up with every single day.
HB: I’m glad someone reported it.
HL: When someone misgenders you, or uses the wrong pronouns, it’s very hurtful and outright embarrassing. It’s something to first discuss with the person. Overtime I’ve just learned to confront the person, like “Why do you keep doing this?!” It takes guts, but I’ll always stand up for myself. Sometimes it’s accidental, and I find that stems from ignorance. Just be respectful. Refer to the person as who they are now. Regardless, I’m a positive person. I always think the best of people.
HB: Are you actively involved in the trans community?
HL: I’m a homebody—I go to work, cook my heart out, sell my bacon, and come home to my family. I’m not active in our community, and a part of me feels very guilty about it. Perhaps it sounds weird, I know, but I’m just living my life like a regular dude. I saw myself as a human being who was born in the wrong body, so I followed the steps necessary to do something about it. The thought of being transgender isn’t something that’s at the forefront of my mind at all. But I do hope to be more involved regarding trans rights in the future, and telling you my story is hopefully a fruitful start to that.
HB: Well, you can start now. What would your advice be to those who are transitioning, or thinking of doing so?
HL: Find a support group in the community, take advantage of the resources. Go to your nearest LGBTQI center and ask for advice from counselors or therapists. Apply for a few sessions to talk about your feelings, and more importantly, where those feelings are stemming from. Give it time. I don’t think it’s something one should rush in to. A surgery is irreversible, so if in doubt, talk to someone who’s been through it all. That’d be the way to go.
HB: Do you believe a gradual transition is perhaps the healthiest way to do it?
HL: It is, but it requires a lot of patience. It can be disheartening because you want to see the changes right away. I’m disappointed I don’t have a beard, but it’s a little too narcissistic to specifically wish for a beard anyway. It’s not just about the appearance. It’s also what you’re feeling inside that matters.
HB: What needs to happen to create a safer, more comfortable environment for transgender people?
HL: More exposure, more visibility. I remember watching Ellen coming out like yesterday, and have a vivid recollection of how disgusted people were. Now, I do feel people have become more aware, and more accepting of LGBTQI people. Having more exposure in different mediums has definitely helped.
HB: Well you’re definitely getting some exposure of your own in the farmer’s market circuit, not to mention a pretty rad television appearance.
HL: Selling bacon at farmer’s markets is my side hustle, and I love building a foundation of trust with people. It’s the best feeling in the world to craft something from start to finish, and to be ultimately responsible for every single detail that goes into your product, not to mention sourcing locally and sustainably. People are demanding local, and there’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from being a part of that revolution. I wake up too early to haul heavy-ass equipment under pissing rain, but the sacrifices are worth it. I have so many loyal, die hard customers waiting for my bacon, and it gives me so much confidence knowing they crave my product.
HB: Elucidate me on your process.
HL: I make my dry-cured bacon in small batches, and source locally. I’m involved in every step of the process—from curing, to smoking, packaging and selling. I rub the pork belly with my own spice combinations, do a 5-day cure, rinse off the rub and let a pellicle form overnight—that’s when the the top skin dries out and locks in the moisture. And when you’re able to create that, the smoke also sticks to it a lot easier. I use hickory and applewood for smoking. I do a Hickory Smoked Maple, a Black Pepper & Honey, as well as a Chinese Five Spice with a Char Siu glaze, just to name a few.
HB: Do you pay attention to customer feedback?
HL: Constructive feedback helps you grow. And if you can’t take criticism, you need to work on taking it. If you’re knocking on somebody, and it morphs into this weird jealousy thing, that’s different. I don’t involve myself in that kind of drama. I’m just doing what I love to build a future for myself and my family. That’s my number one goal.
HB: Is bacon your future, or will cooking always be your paramour?
HL: For sure the bacon. [Chuckles] It’s just taking me places, literally. Having that outlet, that personal connection with people is just so much more satisfying. As a cook, you’re only able to connect with people indirectly, via the food you’re sending out. I may not be the best chef, but I’ve always been strong at forging connections with people. And this time around, I get to do it face to face, through my craft, as well as my product.
HB: You’re connecting with lots of youngsters outside of work as well.
HL: I support a program called “Good Food For All” that’s held out of the Eastside Boxing Gym. We’re about mentoring youth and helping them lead healthy lifestyles. It’s educational, empowering, and a cause I really believe in. I teach young kids the fundamentals of cooking honest food, and how to cook nutritiously. It’d be great to take a couple of them under my wing to mentor them in butchery. I’ve also spoken to downtown eastside indigenous youth at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre about my upbringing, how I started my business, and how to overcome obstacles. It’s all been very rewarding.
HB: What’s the dream?
HL: A beautiful home, some kids, and having my family close by at all times would be great. When we first started dating, I’d entertained this idea of moving to Rio. I loved it there. But the older I get, the more I realize the importance of family. The world’s always going to be there, but family, and the connections I’ve nurtured with people is what matters most to me right now. Running a successful and sustainable business, being in different retailers across B.C. and the States would be great. Full-time bacon would be a dream come true. [Chuckles]
HB: You’ve supported so many people over the years. What’s been the most meaningful thing someone’s done to support you?
HL: My partner was always there for me, through all of my surgeries. She took such great care of me—picking me up when I fell, walking me to the bathroom, feeding me. She has such a big heart. She’s my rock. And she never judged me. It’s the definition of unconditional love. And that’s what I appreciate about her most. She just loves me… for who I am.