Ty Pearce of Ty’s Eatery made a big impact on the local dining scene in 2015
This was the year Ty Pearce went solo with his own pop-up restaurant—without any money or vacation—putting three days of work into his half-day, semiweekly pop-up, Ty’s Eatery, at the Santa Cruz Food Lounge. Since taking on catering jobs serving roughly 300 people every few days, with help from a bigger staff, he’s also begun teaching cooking classes in the East Bay and the pop-ups are down to once a week on Sundays. This was also the year that Pearce made his transition to male public in Santa Cruz, his home since 2011, with his interview in GT’s Food & Drink magazine.
This one aside, most of Pearce’s 37 years haven’t been all that easy. His childhood was spent bouncing around from place to place, caring for siblings while his parents struggled with substance abuse. He’s five years into his transition from Tanya to Ty—assigned female at birth—and after a lifetime of being an interloper in a female’s skin, made the decision to transition in 2010. He was featured on Our America With Lisa Ling the following year, in the midst of a breakup and starting hormone therapy which led to a battle with addiction and his arrival in Santa Cruz.
Now, Pearce is reinvigorating the local dining scene with the taste for healthy, locally sourced cuisine that he learned from the famous Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and his aunt, Cindy Gershen, owner of Sunrise Bistro in Walnut Creek.
Pearce is soft-spoken, methodical; he tears up when he recounts the party that raised $10,000 for his transition surgery, all of which came from friends and customers, and he laughs with a bit of sadness when recounting the dangerous journeys of transgender friends. To get to where he is today, he had to start his entire life over again. But, it’s like he says about his younger years: “What I learned with all that chaos is how to get out of chaos.”
When did you start cooking?
TY PEARCE: I started cooking at a really young age because my parents were never really home and I had three brothers and sisters. I found from an early age that I really enjoyed it. When I was 14, I started at my aunt’s restaurant [Sunrise Bistro]. I worked every single position there, and then my aunt said I should go to culinary school, so I did. Ever since I started in the restaurant that was it for me.
You said that your parents were “entrepreneurs” like in the movie ‘American Hustle.’ What was it like to move from house to house every six months?
I guess it’s something that I learned quite young—that there’s nothing that you can do to change what’s going to happen. I see other guys in the kitchen and they’re like ‘Oh my god, something happened that I didn’t plan for’ and you right there you have to stop, pivot, and move. Even now, I might not be the most organized person compared to other people, but I can put out fires and manage chaos.
Before you got serious about cooking, you were an MMA fighter and considered going pro. Why didn’t you?
I started when I was 15, I did boxing and kickboxing and jiu jitsu—it’s kind of how I got introduced to pain pills, I got injured all the time and doctors just prescribed me stuff. When I fought, I had to fight women, but when I trained I trained with men—there weren’t many women who would step in the ring with me. I saw myself as a male too, and I didn’t want to get in the ring and hit on some girl who was not training to be a man. I remember this one time I fought this girl and she wouldn’t go down. I remember thinking ‘Just fall, fall, I don’t want to hit you.’ I didn’t hit her as hard as I could have. The bell rang and I got out of the ring and stepped down—her daughter was standing there and she looked at me, yelled and ran away. It was traumatizing. After that I wasn’t going to get back in the ring and do that to someone ever again.
When you first got to Santa Cruz, you went to work at Front Street Kitchen but didn’t let on about how much experience in the business you’d had until then, why not?
It was really strange for me because I was really trying to check my ego and not take on a lot of responsibility, I just really wanted to work on myself. I started at Front Street Kitchen under Andrea [Mollenauer], Denna [Myers], and Dori [Stier]—I really enjoyed working for the three women, they were all really nurturing. I would just be quiet and work my hardest for them, and give my input when it was needed. I was broken, too, I didn’t have any confidence, I didn’t know if I belonged in the business anymore.
Your 2015 sounds crazy—you took on a ton of catering gigs, hired new people. What was the best part?
It was such a struggle the first three months, owning my own business. A pop-up takes like three days because it’s not like you have this restaurant and you’re making your food. You have to buy the food, prep it, serve it, build it up and break it down. It’s hours and hours of work. I put the Wednesdays [at the Food Lounge] down and I was so scared. To know that I did that—start a business with no money—I stood in one place and I didn’t give up.
What’s new with Ty’s Eatery?
We’ve been doing lots of of holiday parties and still doing pop-ups at the Food Lounge, but not the Wednesday ones anymore. I go to the farmers market and I see what’s good, I’m utilizing my smoker—everybody loves smoked meats, bacon, pulled pork. My aunt teaches kids at Diablo Mountain High School, when I have a free day I’ll go and work with them. I’m really looking for a space because I’ve kind of outgrown the Food Lounge—the Food Lounge is busy so what’s happening is when I’m in there it’s taking a lot longer to do things. You typically plan out your day, but you get in there and there are a ton of other companies so everything takes a little bit longer. If things continue to go well hopefully a space will come up when it’s safe. We [just did] Ty’s Eatery Give Back Dinner, all proceeds go to Walnut Avenue Women’s Center.
Whatever isn’t eaten, I’ll take over to the homeless shelter.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced as a transgender man before your transition?
Most of the women I’d date were attracted to men and they’d never been with a woman, so for them to even cross that was a big step. A few of those relationships ended in ‘What would our future be? We can’t get married, we can’t have children.’ It brings up insecurities, you go through life feeling like ‘I’m not enough, I can never be enough.’ It’s totally changed now. One, society has changed, I’m accepted. I can do any of those things: I can get married, I can have children.
Was the kitchen a safe haven during that time?
It was an area where gender doesn’t matter—what matters is that you show up, you cook well, you clean, you do your part, and you put your passion into it. It’s a way you can share love with someone. For me it was a way to feel good and equal—it’s a place where I was always accepted.
What’s changed since you transitioned?
It comes up sometimes in the kitchen. Women will be talking and I’ll be like ‘Oh, yeah, I totally know what that feels like,’ and they’ll be like ‘What?’ Even my girlfriend is like ‘It’s so weird to think you had a period at some point in your life.’ There’s things in my life where I find other men challenging me—since the change I feel like I’ve had to deal with more men and their macho-ness. I just think ‘Hey look, whatever game you’re playing or your role, I’m not playing with you.’
Besides dealing with the raging hormones of a boy in puberty, was there anything surprising about transitioning to male?
Talk about humbling experiences, I started CrossFit and was going through AA, in CrossFit I didn’t feel strong enough. I got hurt the first day. The reason I kept hurting myself was because I was pushing too hard or lifting too much—and I’ve only been on hormones for five years. Men’s bodies have testosterone from when they’re a young boy, you have strength that’s totally different. I just met a transgender friend here, he’s a personal trainer and he said ‘Yeah, dude because your hips aren’t developed and the muscles that you’re building aren’t developed yet—its a problem with a lot of transgender people.’ I thought there was something wrong with me, maybe because I’m old. It’s a good thing, I needed to learn to slow down in my life.
Does it ever get tiring, having to explain being transgender to other people?
Because of that TV show, everybody knew back home so I didn’t have a hard time talking about it. I came to Santa Cruz about two years into the transition and no one knew, they just knew me as Ty. There was somebody at work and he was talking about Caitlyn Jenner. He didn’t know I was transgender and he goes ‘This Caitlyn Jenner wants to change sexes and what, she thinks the taxpayers are going to pay for that?’ I just laughed on the inside, I knew that the other GT article was coming out and I was just waiting for him to read it. That’s one thing that I’m trying to do: just not react. Then when they do find out, they learn—‘Oh this guy’s cool, he’s one of the guys.’ I hope that it changed his view of transgender people.