The culinary veteran is inspiring excellence in service in the hospitality world and community.
For executive chef Star Maye, being at the helm of Nashville’s Anzie Blue’s kitchen wasn’t even a dream she could fathom last year. The Black LGBTQ ((lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) veteran has overcome much adversity and is blazing trails not just in Hillsboro Village, where the restaurant she co-owns is located, but also across the city. With a new cookbook out in June titled “A Star Among Us: A Chef's Story,” she is looking to create community through her role in hospitality.
Bringing 23 years of experience to the culinary world, Maye pours the same love and comfort she found in her family’s kitchen into her recipes. After working at several iconic Nashville establishments, she is ready to shine in the spotlight and excel in everything she does. That should be no surprise, considering she hails from the city of Excel in Alabama and studied at Excel High School.
Growing Up in Excel
“June has turned out to be a very busy month for me,” says the chef as she eagerly awaits her book’s pre-sales. Additionally, she was honored to be part of a celebration at the National African American Music Museum and the official food vendor for the Nashville Pride this year. She is also sharing a portion of the proceeds from the sale of her book toward The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth.
Maye hails from Excel, Alabama, attending school there before heading straight to a 3.5-year sprint at the United States Navy. She was last stationed in San Diego, where she’d work during the day and head to a part-time cooking job at night. “I would be so much happier going to my cooking job. I loved it,” she says. Maye admits trying to move away from cooking, seeing how difficult the profession was, but kept returning to it.
Raised in a large family where food played an integral role in bringing everyone together, she traces her love of food to her childhood. “My grandmother was the type of person where she didn't ever want anybody hungry. It didn't matter if she never met you a day in your life,” says the chef.
“Seeing that growing up, that type of compassion that she had for people, regardless of who they are, color or creed. Everybody needs food to be able to sustain life. It's a necessity, and to be able to provide a necessity for someone, it's amazing.”
But Maye experienced a lot of adversity at the beginning of her career. “It was hard to get in, and then if I want to get in, you are the salad girl or potato peeling girl. They’d never give me an opportunity to do anything else. Most of my great opportunities at work when I was younger were just happenstance. I watched everything, I knew everybody's job, and was just waiting on my moment.”
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Choosing the Right Path
Maye’s culinary training occurred through a year-long program at the Culinary Institute, where she learned the basics. “I never thought I would be a chef like I am today. That wasn't ever a thought in my mind. Not even last year,” she shares. “I just know I'm creative and love food and know what to do because I've been doing it for a long time.”
At Anzie Blue, in addition to running the kitchen, she curates a few fun offerings every month, such as a drag brunch, gospel brunch, jazz brunch every weekend and a host of other events.
“I try to keep the restaurant busy and bustling with new and different things people don't expect. I keep creating,” says the Alabama native. “People enjoy a new spin on an old classic. I like to remix things. Food is really an art of interpretation, so that's what I built everything on.”
Although she started Anzie Blue as a cook, determination saw her quickly leading the kitchen —her first menu came out May 21, 2021.
The cookbook is an extension of herself and the recipes she creates at Anzie Blue. It was, in fact, a resource she created for her staff at the end of 2021 when she contracted COVID and was isolated at home for weeks.
“I was thinking about my staff because I'm very close with them. At Anzie Blue, I'm not building a restaurant; I'm building a community. Everything that I do has an intention behind it. Everything has a reason. I think that's what sets me apart,” she says.
Her support for The Trevor Project isn’t one she made lightly either. It plays from her personal experience. “I’ve been there, coming out of the military and being diagnosed with PTSD. I have been that person; I've had to use that service. I've had to call and just talk myself off the edge, and if they weren't there for me to call, what would happen?” she shares. “Because of that, I make sure that I want them always to be there. They will get a proceed from everything I do.”
Tackling Adversity to Thrive
Maye realized early on that simply doing a culinary course didn’t open doors. She was stuck in a room peeling potatoes for four months. “And now, being in this position, I’m still just like ‘Wow’ every day, I can’t believe this is my life.”
Not being recognized for her skills and talent for more than two decades in a heavily male-dominated industry, Maye is ready for this streak of success. “I’ve been the underdog. People think I just showed up one day and taken over Nashville,” she says. “This has been a story of 23 years. Now it's getting some traction. I finally feel like I'm coming out of the shadow.”
One of her goals is to bring more awareness to her field of study and for more women to be open about working in this industry. “There hasn't been any other Black, gay, female executive chef for me to look up to in my 23 years. My hope and dream is to be able to be there for the new generation that's coming,” she says.
“If a phenomenal chef is coming up and if one or two of those say, ‘Chef Star is my inspiration,’ that changes everything for me because I didn't have that. Everybody should be able to feel like they can be an executive chef one day.”
Maye counts among her proudest moments seeing her creations in print for people to see and order their food. “The first day my menu came out, that was so amazing to me. I've never had the opportunity to have that feeling.”
Another proud moment, of course, is the cookbook, stepping into something she has never done before. “The love and the dreams that I have for my menu are in a book for people to be able to enjoy at home.” She wants to be able to spread that love by, hopefully, opening more Anzie Blues. “We have been pivoting and redefining who we are. I want to open them all over the U.S. because every place needs a community. I would like to build more communities around the U.S.”