When COVID-19 forced the world to isolate indoors, many Denver residents yearned for live, outdoor entertainment. That is when Chocolatina, Queen of the Dessert came to the rescue with her precise culinary skill and passion for drag. When she is out of character, she is Denver-based pastry chef Martin Howard.
Howard grew up in Columbia, Maryland. When he was young, he spent countless hours learning and practicing how to cook with his mother.
“Well, I grew up baking with my mother and actually, my grandfather was a chef, and my grandmother on my father’s side, she used to bake pies for the local diner in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It was something fun to do with my mother.”
In high school, Howard took a few cake decorating classes to learn the technique and began working at a local restaurant.
“My parents were like it’s a viable profession if you want to go into that,” he said. “But then, my uncle suggested I go to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York.”
At that time, you were required to have two years of experience and a recommendation from an alum of the institute. Howard didn’t check either of those boxes, so he spent about two and a half years working at a restaurant under an executive chef who was an alumnus, and finally got himself in.
After graduation, his career as a pastry chef ignited. He did an apprenticeship with a former White House pastry chef and spent over 25 years working as a chef in New York. He was the Executive Pastry Chef at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room and spent time at Brasserie 8 ½ in Manhattan.
Chocolatina began her journey at a New York tasting event in 1996.
“So, the birth of Chocolatina was at an event in New York called ‘For the Love of Chocolate,’” he said. “My table was themed after Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So, that’s when I became Chocolatina, Queen of the Dessert, as a take on that!”
While working at a restaurant in New York, Howard met a friend that was a Miss America Pageant coach and the two teamed up to refine Chocolatina’s look by perfecting her make up and costume.
After mastering the perfect look, Chocolatina entered the Miss Stonewall competition, a drag show celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
“I was kind of like a little miss sunshine coming in there, I was like alright well, we’ll just do it, and we’ll have a good time,” he said. “And then, I ended up winning!”
Chocolatina, Queen of the Dessert became the first Miss Stonewall and in following years was given the opportunity to judge the competition a few times.
Persuaded by a friend who had done the same, Howard decided to move to Denver five years ago. He began working as a pastry chef at Epicurean Group, one of the leading catering companies in the U.S.
“Then COVID hit and there were no parties,” he said. “By the time we hit July, I thought maybe I should try and make some money.”
Howard made a pie one day that he planned to bring to a dinner party. Before leaving for the party, he decided to snap a quick picture of the pie and post it on Facebook.
“By the time I got to their house, it had kind of blown up,” he said. “That night I came home, made a quick page on Facebook, to see if it would get any interest. And lo and behold there was interest.”
After receiving good press about his pies, Howard’s artistry blossomed, and he decided to pursue his pie-making dream using Epicurean’s space to craft his desserts.
“During COVID, people were hungry for pie and live entertainment,” he said. “I probably do about 50 to 60 pies a week right now.”
Howard not only made pies, but he would also give each delivery a performance in his drag persona Chocolatina, Queen of the Dessert. He offered party packages, including two 6-inch pies, two quiches, and a live singing performance.
This June being Pride Month, Howard said that there is still an immense amount of improvement that needs to happen regarding acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community.
“There was a campaign started a few years back saying it gets better. I say it gets a little better,” he said. “I mean as far as we’ve come, it’s just shocking that we haven’t come further.”
Howard said drag is different for everyone, but it is one way he can express his identity and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community.
“I mean, drag is different for everyone. It’s a different thing for different people, you just have to find where you fit in,” he said. “Yeah, it’s definitely a way to celebrate. This year I’m actually very involved with Pride. I’m going all out this year.”
Chocolatina now delivers pies herself three days a week. To check out her weekly pie selections, visit her website, thepiequeen.co. You can also check out her Instagram (@thepiequeenofdenver) or her Facebook page.