This post is to celebrate the birthday of one of my absolute dearest friends, Ben Starr.
Around this time two summers ago, I was doing what a typical kid does in his post-high school, pre-college summer: a whole lotta nothing. Naturally, I filled my time with watching a lot of shows on Hulu. One of the shows I started following closely was a cooking show that I had only paid attention to briefly in its inaugural season: MasterChef. The one character on that show that had more charisma and attracted my attention more than any of the other contestants (including Jennifer, who won), was none other than Ben Starr. He was by FAR the most entertaining character. Having just learned the ropes on how to use twitter (at that time on my old account @michaeljcchen), I followed him and a few of the other MC2 contestants and quickly saw how approachable he was as well. Regularly responding to fans’ questions (I asked a couple myself), meeting with fans and posting pictures with them, and just overall interacting with him. I still viewed him as a big time celebrity, and yet….he didn’t carry himself like one. One day, as I was sitting around dilly-dallying in my summer doldrums, I came across a tweet saying that he was going to be at BBQ Outfitters in Austin the next day at 1 pm. Purely on a whim, I asked him if he minded me stopping by and saying hi while he was there, and in typical Ben Starr fashion, he extended his welcoming (cyber) arms and told me to come on down. I didn’t think much of it, thinking that he either said it out of politeness or that there were going to be so many people there that I would barely catch a glimpse of him. I went to bed and didn’t give it a second thought.
The next day I woke up and settled into my usual routine of boredom (who hasn’t been there in the summers as a high school student??). All of a sudden, I remembered the interactions with Ben Starr, and did a quick google search of where BBQ outfitters was. Surprise, it was only roughly 10 minutes from my house. I looked at the clock: 12:00 noon. I figured that I might as well give it a shot. Went downstairs, had lunch, grabbed my motorcycle helmet, and told my mom I was going to meet a cooking celebrity before waltzing out the door.
I pulled into the lot of the place and first noticed the lack of cars…and people. Was this the right place? I walked into the store. Nobody. I looked around…this was BBQ outfitters, and it was 1 pm…where are the throngs of adoring fans? A sales associate asked if I needed any help, and I brushed her off, telling her that I was just “looking around”. As I neared the back of the store though, my ears perked up. I heard the unmistakable, expressive voice of Ben Starr in an office in the back, having an animated conversations (is there any other type with Ben?) with one of the representatives from the store. I tried to contain my excitement by reading a cookbook and updating my facebook status. About half an hour later, their meeting concludes, and I get my first live look at this “celebrity”. Though I knew next to nothing about him outside of the show, I knew that he was popular and famous and that shot lightning bolts of excitement through my body. We made eye contact, smiled, and he walked over to introduce himself. “You’re……Michael, right?” “Yep! And obviously..you’re Ben Starr!” We both had a bit of a chuckle after that. We chatted briefly, I asked him about MasterChef, we took a picture together, all of the typical things that you do when you meet a celebrity. I also talked about how I occasionally liked to cook, and Ben immediately asked if I was thinking about trying out. “Oh….no no no, not me. I’m too young, too inexperienced, not ready. Besides, I have school to worry about, and my parents would KILL me.” He told me not to worry and just to give it a shot, and that the show might host an audition in Austin and I should go if they did. I nervously told him that I would consider it. He then proceeded to hand me one of his business cards, told me to send him an email when I had the chance, and that if I was ever in Dallas, to drop by for dinner anytime. Heart pounding, I looked down at the card. ALL of his contact information was on there. Phone number, personal email address, physical address, EVERYTHING. Now keep in mind for a teenager that saw Ben as a mega-celebrity, this was JAW-DROPPING stuff. I could stalk, harass, annoy, and basically be a giant pain in the ass if I were a crazy fan. Now, luckily for him, I wasn’t, but I did immediately go home and google his address just so I had an idea where he lived ;).
This is the awkward picture that we took when we first met and I was still starstruck. Yes, I have the horrible habit of closing my eyes in photos >.>
After posting this picture on facebook and basking in my friends’ jealousy, I didn’t connect with Ben again until the open casting call in Austin rolled around. From following him on social media, I found out that he was going to be at the casting call. As I waited in line, holding my beef tendon salad (sounds strange, but tastes DELICIOUS), he went along one by one and chatted with EVERY contestant. As soon as he got to me, his eyes lit up and immediately recognized me. We chatted very briefly, and he told me to come find him again after the audition was over.
The audition process itself was an intense process, and once I got the callback, I stepped outside and promptly collapsed into Ben’s arms (I wasn’t even that much of a “huggy” person at that time!). I told him about my audition, and he told me to email him with any questions that I had.
Here is the very first email I EVER sent Ben. By this point I was in full out MasterChef preparation mode:
Hey Ben!I don’t know if we know each other well enough to be considered “friends” yet, but I will just pretend for now :).What should I be doing in the time between now and February, when the list will be announced? Should I just be burying myself in cookbooks and testing out recipes, or take it easy?Also, do you have any idea how many people are usually still in the running at this stage in the competition? I want to know what realistically my chances are, as I’ll need to talk to my college department about the possibility of needing to take an extended break.Over the Winter break, I would LOVE for a chance to cook with you, but I know that you are a busy (but poor) man that is scurrying all around the country for assorted engagements. If you are ever in Austin in December/January and happen to have the time, please lemme know :).Thanks for being so personable and friendly! Hope to follow in your footsteps someday (as unlikely as it may be haha).Best regards,Michael Chen
And so began PAGES and PAGES of long email conversations. If I had measured the time it would have taken Ben to write everything that he ended up writing, it would have been measured in DAYS instead of hours.
Since that email, here is an abbreviated version of how our friendship has evolved since then.
- He was one of the first people I came out to, and passed no judgement on either my sexuality of my religious beliefs.
- During the casting process, when it became apparent that I needed to go to ATLANTA for my psych eval (mandatory in every TV show), Ben personally took me in for a night, drove me all the way to Atlanta, paid for all the gas, the hotel, and most of the food, took me on a mini vacation/detour to Baton Rouge where I met his good friend Cory, and kept me entertained/answered my incessantly annoying questions the ENTIRE 30 hour road trip until he dropped me off at my front door in Austin. I was completely flabbergasted that he would do something like that for me (and you should be too!), but it was definitely one of the most memorable road trips I have ever taken. It was also the FIRST time in my life that I had every hung out candidly with two openly gay guys (him and Cory), and the whole time I was just struck by how fun, how not creepy, and how at ease I was. It was truly an enlightening experience.
- After the show, Ben and I met and decompressed in a way that only fellow reality-tv contestants could. I was miserable and depressed and lonely and confused and Ben helped snap me out of it and set me on the right path.
- When I got “fired” from Barley Swine (ironically for standing up to bullying) and felt like a worthless failure, it was Ben that gave me the encouragement to continue.
- When I got offered the chance to go to Canada and cook, it was Ben who gave me a kick in the ass and told me that he wouldn’t ever speak to me again if I didn’t go and take advantage of this opportunity.
- It was through Ben that I was introduced into a wonderful circle of some of the coolest people on the planet: His partner Christian, who is also now a dear friend of mine with whom I can have endless talks about cars, airplanes, boys, and chocolate with (and to whom I owe my AMAZING flight benefits and my several trips in First Class haha). His roommate, Chris, whose snarky cynicism is at once both profoundly irritating and endearing. His neighbor, Sharon, a retired flight attendant, who is filled with more personality than anybody her age has a right to have. The amazing, lovely, life-filled Jennie Kelley, who lights up every room she walks into. Also, JP, Jacques, Karen, Ma, Angela, Bruno, Melissa, Raspberry/Ryan, and countless other people that have made my life so much more interesting.
- It was Ben who let me live with him for over a month after I got back from Canada, who cooked brunch and dinner for me EVERY DAY during that span, who drove me around before I bought a car, who connected me with Jennie who connected me with the job at the Kessler, who transformed me from a dog-fearer to an absolute dog-lover.
- It’s Ben that I go to with all of my boy troubles. When I meet a boy that I like, my first thought is “I should introduce him to Ben and see what he thinks”.
- In an emergency, Ben is always the first person I reach out to. When my car broke down, Ben was the person that I called (He immediately drove 45 minutes to come and rescue me as I was having a panic attack).
- It is Ben that will call me out with the harsh truth when I need to hear it. “You’re coming across as way too negative. You sound like a cocky, arrogant asshole.”
- Plus many many many many many many more things. It would not surprise me one bit if Ben has invested a few thousand dollars, directly or indirectly, in making my life better over the past year or so, not to mention the hours and hours of time.
So in short (This is where the TL:DR people can skip to), thank you, Ben Starr, for everything that you have done for me. I love you so much.* This is probably the most cliche thing to say, but I can’t think of any better thing to say except that you’ve been the best, greatest, most incredible, friend, mentor, supporter, and teacher I could have ever asked for. You have been there for me through EVERYTHING I’ve been through for the past year or so, and I can never, ever thank and appreciate you enough. You have changed me dramatically from the meek, shy, awkward kid to the guy that is now confident enough to be myself and to pursue my dreams and my passions. I owe so much of who I am today because of you, and I couldn’t be happier. Even though I know you don’t care much about birthdays, I hope you have an AWESOME 36th, and I’m thrilled that I can spend it with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
*Disclaimer: I have heard some rumors, and some of you may genuinely be curious about how close Ben and I are. Though we are both gay, we have never had a romantic or sexual relationship of ANY kind. Our friendship has been strictly platonic. Ben has been nothing but respectful and I trust him more than I trust anybody.