MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) – With a mix of elegance and irreverence, only celebrity chef Art Smith could round up his famous chef buddies, a sea of white orchids and a drag queen DJ to pull off a wedding ceremony Feb. 21 for more than two dozen same-sex couples on Miami Beach.
Smith, a Florida native and former chef to Oprah Winfrey and Gov. Bob Graham, is revered by fellow chefs and those in the gay and lesbian community, known as the chef with a big Southern accent and an even bigger heart.
When Smith heard that Florida judges had lifted the state’s ban on same-sex marriage last month, he set out to throw an over the top-wedding officiated by chef Guy Fieri, with a stunning cake from Duff Goldman, and a dance party spun by local star Chi Chi LaRue. He invited the first 101 couples to participate in the free wedding, noting he chose the number after the movie “101 Dalmatians” to shame Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has ardently fought to keep same-sex marriage from becoming legal.
“We have our own Cruella De Vil, Pam Bondi. She was determined that she was going to prevent equality from coming to Florida,” Smith said.
“For a state known for sunshine, it was living in the darkness when it came to LGBT rights and it was important to acknowledge that.”
South Beach is also memorable to Smith who met his partner, Jesus Salgueiro, here 15 years ago while in town with Winfrey. Smith went out to buy some flowers for her home. He returned with the flowers and Salgueiro, whom he married five years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with a big `ole ceremony where Moby performed.
Nicole Griffin, 43, and Stephanie Swanson, 42, had been waiting a few years to say ‘I do.’ The Tampa couple moved from Indiana shortly before gay marriage became legal there. Friends flew in from California and Indianapolis to see the women, both wearing elegant white gowns, get married Feb. 21.
“(Pam Bondi) fought so hard. She denied us for so long … I think our presence today and being able to do this is a defeat of that mentality,” Swanson said.
Bondi is appealing the rulings and some county officials in more conservative areas have even stopped performing marriage ceremonies.
Seth Anderson and his partner Michael Ferguson, both 33, flew out from Utah to renew their vows. They were among the first to legally marry there two years ago, but none of their family or friends were able to attend the impromptu ceremony at the courthouse where the couple had nothing to wear but their work clothes.
“We wanted to come and be a part of this and celebrate with all the other people getting married,” Anderson said.
They were one of the couples who walked down the aisle in the courtyard of The James Royal Palm hotel as a small orchestra played. Many couples said they became emotional when Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Fieri, a chef with spiky hair, tattoos and a love for Southern BBQ, officiated the ceremony in honor of his late sister who was a lesbian.
It was especially emotional for 45-year-old Hugo Lopez to return to the area where he said he had previously experienced so much intolerance.
“For me to come back here to a place that felt so hostile growing up, to know this (wedding) was happening … I was terrified we were going to get turned away when we went to get our marriage license in Hialeah,” said Lopez, who married Ryan Griffin wearing matching linen suits.
The couples were showered with white rose petals thrown from the balconies and then treated to a feast of fried chicken, grilled lamb, crab-stuffed avocadoes, empanadas and a seven-tier gold and silver cake from Goldman, star of Food Network’s reality show Ace of Cakes.
“My only agenda is to celebrate this and make it true in every state,” said Goldman, who is also a gay-rights advocate. After reading of a baker who refused to make a cake for a lesbian couple a few years ago, Goldman tracked them down and made them a cake.
“We are not arbitrators of morality, we’re cake decorators,” he said.
Smith, who hosts the Big Gay Ice Cream Social at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival each year, said it had been their polite protest to the state law for years. Now they were ready to throw a wedding.
“I felt like it was important for us to show the haters, just shake it off,” he said quoting a Taylor Swift song as he moved onto the dance floor as the crowd cheered him on. “We’re gonna have a party and we’re going to show people we’re proud, we’re happy, we’re loud.