Food Is Life 

Pastry chef Mark Gray uses his skills to help those with HIV/AIDS

Mark Gray • Lowcountry AIDS Services • Age: 48 • Charleston • 33 years out

Classically trained as a pastry chef and master confectioner at Greenbrier Hotel's Culinary Academy, Mark Gray gained national recognition for his work at Cacao's Chocolate Shop, a well-remembered part of King Street's not-so-distant past. The great love of his life is food, followed closely by a devotion to the history of steamships and railroads. "It all ties together," he says. "In the height of great steam and rail passenger service, you would get linens, silver, china, almost an obsessive-compulsive need to make the food and the service perfect." Openly gay all his adult life, Mark was drawn to assisting those living with HIV/AIDS. Ten years ago, he made the transition from the kitchen to the nutrition program at Lowcountry AIDS Services.

You came out early in life, in Virginia, which is a very conservative state. What was that like for you?

I came out when I was 15 years old, in 1974. I knew that I was different when I was 6 years old, in first grade. That's when I had my first crush. He just died, this past summer, of AIDS. It absolutely crushed me because I was never able to let him know that I had a crush on him. He'd moved back home to die. His family was not very appreciative of his being a gay man, and it was a very tough thing. And it was a struggle when I was coming out, being brought up in that conservative religious Southern atmosphere in Virginia. I was thinking, "How can this be? How can this God that created me hate me at the same time?" I just didn't buy it. From an early age, I became very interested in philosophy, mythology, other people, other cultures, other thoughts. That's really where this insatiable curiosity of mine was born.

You have an extraordinary reputation as a pastry chef and confectioner.What caused the transition from your work in chocolate to the HIV nutrition program?

It actually goes back to those very early days when I ran Cacao's. Susan Pearlstine and Joe Hall were rattling the doors in town over the fact that people in our community were dying of this gay cancer, this gay flu, whatever it was. They rallied the rest of us. They asked me, with the popularity of the store, to hold a fund-raiser there. These were the days when Dudley's [a local gay bar] still had the windows painted black, so you couldn't see in there as opposed to where we are today. This was a very different time. People were scared to death of this stuff, kind of guilt by association, association with someone who was HIV-positive. I eventually became a volunteer at Lowcountry AIDS Services, and they trusted me enough to let me go ahead and revamp and rework the food program there.

Talk to me about food. What do you love about it?

It's a common denominator. There is culture in food and a tremendous amount of emotion put into food. Food is very personal. One of my favorite things as far as savory foods to cook is still a pan of cornbread in a black skillet. And I make an evil-ass pan cornbread. But you want to see me get happy, put me in a pastry kitchen and let's start making pastries, confections, or chocolates. When I am with a group of people that I don't know, I'll ask, "What are some of the favorite things that your mother would make at Christmas?" That's how I begin to understand who a person is. From talking about food, I hear about home. I hear what home was for them.

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