In 2012, Alex Koones experienced a moment of kismet. She was 22 years old and living in a lesbian commune in New Orleans with dreams of working in film. Her residence in the commune was contingent on pitching in around the space, and for Koones, who grew up in a big family of talented yet reluctant cooks, working in the kitchen was the easiest option. It would also prove to be a fateful one. One day, a woman passing through the commune took note of Koones' natural talent and implored her to consider taking a job at a restaurant. Koones decided it was time to do just that, and the rest is history.
“I remember thinking how I had never thought of being a line cook before, even though I'd been a waitress my whole life," recalls Koones, now 29. “It felt like the missing piece of the puzzle." With that, Koones' life shifted course. She took a line cook job, saved up money, and tossed her dreams of working in film aside in favor of studying at the Institute of Culinary Education. Her choice served her well; Koones now has experience at posh New York restaurants like Breslin, Nomad, and Jean Georges under her belt, and for the past year, she's been at the helm of Babetown, a monthly, roaming dinner party for New York's queer community.
Koones found a quiet intimacy in cooking for others, and always enjoyed using her culinary chops to feed her friends. “I always get anxious that my words aren't coming across right and I'm scared I come off as cold, so that's why I always love to invite people over for dinner and feed them," she explains. “You know from my actions how I feel in my heart." She had toyed around with the concept of creating a public dinner party, and the idea further crystallized after the 2016 Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida.
Koones hosted a Pride party two days after the tragic attack and her dinner party transformed into a meeting point for healing as people poured in to be with their community. Lisa Cannistraci, owner of the West Village lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, encouraged Koones to not wait around for others to start her dream queer space and with that, Babetown was born. “We're all queer people living under a government that doesn't show us respect, and we should have a unified group," says Koones. “I thought more and more about how cool it would be to invite strangers to a dinner party and form a network of queer, trans, and non-binary people throughout the city who are connected and supporting each other."
When the first Babetown dinner was announced in September 2016, tickets sold out in a flash. “I think people trusted me," explains Koones, whose involvement with New York's lesbian community runs deep. “They know they're going to come to a party that I throw and I'm going to put out good food, I'm going to make sure the liquor doesn't run out, and they're gonna have a great time and not going to be sized up based on how they look or how cool they come across."
In a city with every type of queer scene imaginable, it's easy to forget that not everyone likes to get wild and although Koones originally envisioned Babetown as the type of raucous house party that reminds you of your messiest college nights, its current manifestation is infinitely more relaxed. Most guests show up as strangers to one another, but endless alcohol and gourmet food serve as conduits for conversation and budding friendships. “The point of the party is to bring out the best in people, to create an environment where they're relaxed and have food in their stomachs." And the food is no joke; handmade gnocchi, slow-roasted confit squash, grilled crab, and parsnip latkes spiced with toasted za'atar are among the party's past dishes.
Babetown currently sits in a liminal space, one which Koones hopes to be an escape for guests while still acknowledging the harsh realities of hurting communities in the political climate. “For us to pretend that we aren't divided was what I really wanted to do when Babetown began. Pretend that there aren't these huge divides between us and focus on what we have in common," she says. “But there are huge divides between all of us. Every single day I wake up and ask myself How can I provide a refuge from all that while still working against it and still being very aware of it?"
Koones is especially cognizant of the trans community and hopes her Babetown dinners can be an adhesive for the rift caused by harrowing anti-trans sentiments in both government policy and even within queer circles. “I saw everyone marching for gay marriage, I marched for gay marriage, but when I show up to march for a trans woman who's been killed, there's like 10 people around me," she says. “That's what I want to remind people. Our problems are shared. When a trans woman dies, that's a member of our community, our sister, who's been taken from us by people who hate us as well. This is all of our problem."
See photos from past Babetown events below.