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Dine With Pride – Chef Bill Smith brings food, philosophy to Oxford

Chef Bill Smith, James Beard Award nominee, bestselling cookbook author and LGBTQ Rights Activist, will be at City Grocery tonight for Oxford Pride Weekend’s “Dine with Pride” event.

Smith, who is known for his Chapel Hill, N.C. restaurant Crook’s Corner, is a longtime friend of Oxford restaurateur John Currence and sits on the board for Southern Foodways Alliance. The decision to travel to Oxford to support the local LGBTQ community during Pride Weekend, he said, was a no-brainer.

“John Currence is a very old friend of mine. He and I share similar politics and it was right up my alley to come and do this,” Smith said. “(LGBT people) are important to me, because I am one. There are a lot of things that need addressing, a lot of wrongs that need to be righted, so this is just one of several causes I champion.”

Knowing “early on” that he identified as a gay man, Smith said he was raised to be self-reliant. He admits he avoided discussions about gay rights, but his feelings about activism changed in 2010.

On Sept. 22, 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after being outed by his roommate. After learning about the tragedy, Smith said he realized there were others facing the same obstacles he faced who weren’t faring so well. He also realized the possibility of using his platform to spark change.  

“I never preached gay rights to anybody, but I didn’t take any crap for it either. I was a gentleman, so I didn’t get in anybody’s face about it,” he said. “Eight or nine years ago, this kid jumped off a bridge and killed himself because he was outed by his roommate. And I thought, ‘You know, you really need to step up.’”

Since then, Smith has devoted time to advocating for the LGBTQ community. Using his gifts as a chef, he said he began to understand that food can often be a connection between people who disagree in nearly every other arena.

The main dish offered at the Dine With Pride event will be Smith’s green Tabasco chicken, a spicy, southern-inspired crowd-pleaser that is a staple at Crook’s Corner. The recipe calls for roasted chicken bathed in green tabasco hot sauce, stuffed with chiles, lemons and herbs, and dressed with a pan gravy sauce. The event will also feature dishes from Currence, Snackbar chef Vishwesh Bhatt and desserts by chef Austin Agent.

Smith said he hopes the Dine With Pride event will start conversations about issues facing the LGBTQ community and others, or at the very least, open up people’s minds to different points of view.

“It’s a real Southern thing. Food makes people behave themselves,” he said. “Chefs are often called on to support causes, and I see it as sort of a responsibility.”

In addition to being a LGBTQ Rights activist, Smith recently became involved with the discussion surrounding immigration. Working in restaurants often means working with people who might be new to the country, he said.

Because he cares about the people he knows as well as those he doesn’t, Smith said he felt led to speak up for what is right.

“I do speak my mind when I feel like an injustice has been done,” Smith said. “I’ve talked a lot about immigrants, because in restaurant kitchens, oftentimes your dishwasher does not speak English. These people are getting beat up on right now, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”

Making personal connections with others, Smith said, is the beginning of the path to open dialogue and positive change.

Proceeds from the Dine with Pride event will benefit the Isom LGBTQ Arts, Culture and Community Development Fund. There will be two seatings, at 6 and 8 p.m. To make a reservation, call City Grocery at 662-232-8080. To learn more about Pride Weekend, visit http://www.oxfordpride.rocks. At press time, reservations were still available.