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Creating Family Among Friends and Fame

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ART SMITH
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The holidays are again upon us, and as a gay man, and a busy one, I, like many, will be celebrating with more friends than family. Part of this has to do with my busy schedule as a chef. After so many years living as an openly gay man in the city, I have brought many people into my life with whom I celebrate both good times and sad times. Trust me, it's easy when you're a chef: everybody loves a cook because everybody loves food!

The reality is that most of us want to be together only in the good times, but to experience friendship in trying times really reveals the beauty life offers. My work became the first place I found acceptance, both from myself and from others. My beloved parents, like many of their day, found accepting my sexuality very difficult and didn't understand. It took a long time for them to see that it wasn't some passing feeling (as my Christian mother said, "What the Devil has come over you?").

Growing up in the tiny town of Jasper, Fla., where I was so different and bullied for being different, I used my piano-playing skills and my charm to win people over -- that is, until I could get the hell out of there! People loved me, but they all thought I was a strange one.

My 20 years as a personal chef, for high-ranking government officials like Senator Bob Graham and celebrities like Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, and Lady Gaga, have been about creating beautiful meals for amazing people. What I've loved about all these wonderful people is that I've lived as an openly gay man with these folks. They have loved me, during and before I became comfortable with being open, and it has helped me. I drop their names, but for their being supportive of me as a gay man!

At dinner one night at the Florida governor's mansion, First Lady Adele Graham, between the soup and salad, said to Gov. Bob Graham that she thought I would be happier living in San Francisco. I was aghast that the First Lady had outed me at the dinner table, but I am grateful that she did! It came from a place of love and caring.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, a leader in style in our country, was one of America's first companies to truly embrace the LGBT community. I remember catering many events for the New York AIDSRide and being proud to cook for Martha and proud of her for standing up for us. Her professionalism, taste and dedication has molded my career. My favorite comment from Martha: "You live life once, so make sure it's pretty!"

The thing that has been so amazing about my career is that as it's evolved, my "created" family has evolved. Being introduced to Oprah Winfrey through her hairdresser Andre Walker was life-changing. An amazing woman, boss, and mentor, she has taught me so many lessons. The hardest-working lady in showbusiness, she loves bringing people together, friends and family. She showed me that love has no boundaries, for everyone is loved equally.

My 32-year friendship with Naushab Ahmed reminds me a lot of Ms. Winfrey's friendship with Gayle King. We were brought together as students at Florida State University, and together he and I have learned so much about life and have explored the world together, cooking for every possible star in the universe.

Oprah embraced my whole family, consoled me when I broke up with my first boyfriend, and was the first to meet Jesus, my husband of one year and partner of 12 years, when he sent flowers to me at her Fisher Island home. She said, "Flowers for Art, from Jesus?" I said, "Not the one upstairs, but my Venezuelan one!" The greatest gift of my relationship with Ms. Winfrey came when she sent me out to buy flowers one fateful day; had she not done so, Jesus and I might never have met! Thank you, Maria Shriver for telling Ms. Winfrey to send me to Pistals and Petals to buy flowers. Jesus and I laid eyes on each other that day, and the rest is a story of love and passion.

Through the many events that Ms. Winfrey held, Jesus and I would cook, arrange flowers and celebrate. I remember being invited to her black-tie birthday gala with all the stars. Jesus danced with Trudie Styler, and I was inches away from Brad Pitt. We had arrived as same-sex partners, and I have much appreciation for Ms. Winfrey for presenting us together.

Jesus and I were so thankful to her for teaching us to extend that love, to show and demonstrate the importance of acceptance, that we created Common Threads, our nonprofit, 10 years ago. Through simple cooking lessons, we have now taught thousands of children across the country about acceptance and how to take better care of themselves.

Oprah demonstrated her love for Jesus and me once again when she honored us by introducing us to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. We were their neighbors in Kenwood-Hyde Park, Chicago, but her introduction led to our friendship and cooking for them throughout the years. One day Jesus and I were in the kitchen, I cooking and he arranging flowers, for Ms. Winfrey and the Obamas, and I said to him, "Honey, I think we need to stop and think about what we are actually doing at this moment!"

Our newest adventure came from being introduced to Lady Gaga backstage at The Oprah Winfrey Show. I, being a serial star cooking chef, had to cook for her when I heard she was on the show. What I didn't realize was that she already knew me from my appearance on Bravo's Top Chef Masters.

After enjoying for the first time my fried chicken and waffles, she ran out of her dressing room and said, "Chef Art, I loved you on Top Chef Masters, and I'm so sorry you didn't win!" My reply: "Honey, I did win: you remember me!" It isn't always about winning; it's about being remembered.

What was truly amazing about being on Top Chef Masters was that it was the first time I was openly gay on national television. I was myself, and people found me entertaining and loved my I Love Lucy moments and watching me cry.

Well, the holidays are here, and I am so grateful as a gay man that my friends, gay and straight, who are my family, have loved and supported me through it all. This year we will all be together for one big, fun holiday at The Cloister at Sea Island, Ga. I'm going to be cooking up a storm! My mother, Addie Mae, once she met and found Jesus, was hooked. We have traveled the world together, and I think she may actually enjoy him more than me! Mom is the coolest, and I was so proud of her standing next to Jesus and me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as Marian Williams blessed us that August day, with 500 guests all in their Nike running outfits.

Wow, I'm also very grateful for another amazing man, celebrity trainer Az Ferguson, who believed a chef could return to health. Well, I've returned, all right, sassier and sexier, and I am ready to do more! Through it all, I hope that I can help people and support all those things that need to be done. I'm most happy that I can do it as a proud gay man with this amazing group of friends, some famous, some not, all sharing a common thread: they love to eat, and they love the man who cooks it!

XOXOXO
Chef Art Smith