How Eric See is Uplifting the Queer Community
Ursula’s pop-up dinner series provides a safe space for queer chefsLayla Khoury-Hanold
May 10, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17-percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. As a result, chefs, restaurateurs, and other industry professionals across the nation adapted their business models to survive, and in turn, created new structures with equity and sustainability at their heart.
Below, Layla Khoury-Hanold spoke with Eric See on how he is using his business to create opportunities for the queer community.
Some say that the best breakfast burritos in New York can be found at Ursula, a New Mexican inspired café-bakery in Brooklyn and a 2022 James Beard Award Best New Restaurant nominee. Like most dishes worth their salt in New York’s competitive dining landscape, you’ll have to wait in line to score one. Ursula has also garnered lines and sold-out-status for hosting various events that elevate queer people in the food space. Committed to uplifting the LGBTQIA+ community, chef-owner of Ursula, Eric See, holds space to amplify queer voices, accelerate their businesses, and reinvest in the people that helped him along the way.
See’s dedication to queer advocacy has long been a cornerstone of his personal ideology and business philosophy. See—who first worked in pastry at Tribeca restaurant, Locanda Verde—first sold his Italian rainbow cookies at the Hester Street Fair, where he raised $2,000 to benefit the victims of the Pulse Shooting in Orlando, Florida. Prior to Ursula, See ran the Awkward Scone in Brooklyn, a bakery-café where he first sold the Hatch chile-laced breakfast burritos of his Albuquerque youth. There, he continued selling rainbow cookies and donated portions of proceeds to queer organizations such as Immigration Equality and the Ali Forney Center.
Unfortunately, like many hospitality businesses, the Awkward Scone was a pandemic casualty. But before it closed in June 2020, See concurrently used the space to run a grocery distribution and mutual aid hub with a network of chefs, restaurant owners, and volunteers, who cooked and distributed food to less privileged and marginalized communities in Brooklyn. As a last act of service, See donated all profits from its final weekend of service to Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (G.L.I.T.S.) and The Okra Project, which provides home-cooked, healthy, and culturally specific meals to Black trans people.
Although closing his restaurant was devasting, it proved a blessing in disguise. “I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason,” See says. “Awkward Scone was not meant to be—in the way that it was formed in that space. There was a more personal and intentional journey for me.”
After handing in the keys to the space, See took a three-week cross-country road trip with his dog, including a stop in his hometown of Albuquerque. He used this time to figure out his next step—pandemic unemployment insurance was about to run out, and no one was hiring out-of-work pastry chefs.
“I reflected on one of the most successful and popular items, which was the burrito,” See says, looking back at the Awkward Scone’s menu. “I thought, if I opened a spot that sold burritos for the next year, I could sell enough to make a living and figure it out after that.”
Back in New York, See started discussing his concept with industry peers, and as encouragement mounted, he incorporated a broader focus on New Mexican cuisine. The food and queer communities rallied around See to support his vision for Ursula: Noah Fecks did food photography pro bono; Simi Mahtani, an artist See hosted at the Awkward Scone, designed the logo; and Claire Sprouse, owner of Hunky Dory (now closed), sublet him the Crown Heights space she had previously designated for a wine bar. Ursula officially launched in September of 2021.
“It felt like a second chance to start over. It’s very in line with the story of resilience and overcoming obstacles—[something] my grandma Ursula has been doing her whole life,” See says. “It felt appropriate to dedicate that journey to my home and childhood in New Mexico.”
Menu staples reflect this heritage, too, including his aunt Dorothy’s pastelitos, aunt Berta’s Mexican wedding cookies (which See recreated since she wouldn’t part with the recipe), and uncle Ernesto’s buttery biscochitos. The sopapillas—fried and stuffed with the likes of beans, chile, rice, and meat, all smothered with red chile—nod to See’s first kitchen job back home.
After opening in September 2020, See again focused on giving back. “I had a lot of friends who lost jobs, positions, [and] companies due to the pandemic,” he says. “It was a seemingly big disruption in the queer community and queer food community, and I wanted to find a way to start re-engaging.”
He launched Ursula’s queer pop-up takeout series in February 2021 with the intention of giving “people in queer food a chance to make money, accelerate their business, or explore cooking through their own familial heritage.” To date, See has voluntarily worked every Ursula pop-up, 14 in total.
The March 2021 pop-up featured married chef couple Jessica and Trina Quinn. After they were furloughed during the pandemic, they started cooking together at home, and, leaning into Jessica’s Eastern European roots, launched Dacha 46. At their Ursula pop-up, they served dishes such as pelmeni, savory pork-and-onion dumplings, and pampushky, a Ukrainian jam-filled doughnut. “The pandemic reset the way they were thinking about cooking and sharing food,” See says, noting the parallel to his own story.
Since the launch, diners have come out in droves to support these queer chefs; a few regulars haven’t missed a single pop-up. And whether folks have heard of the series, these chefs’ contributions have bolstered Ursula’s “dining destination” reputation. “There’s integrity attached to these meals. There’s trust within the community, that, ‘if I come to the pop-up, I’m going to get good food,’” See says.
But will See continue to have the physical space for the series? See’s sublet at 724 Sterling Place expires year-end, so he’s launched a GoFundMe campaign to secure capital to sign a new lease while scouting for a new location. He hopes to find one with a larger kitchen to streamline production and more indoor seating to increase service and expand the menu. In addition, room for a bar program would offset rising food costs and allow See to continue to pay employees fair living wages. An expanded space also leaves room for more queer events on the horizon.
“I want them to be fun, explorative, whatever they need them to be,” See says. “I absolutely have plans to save space for that in the future.”
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Food Network, Saveur, and Refinery29, and in the Chicago Tribune. Follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.