The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is bringing its 23rd set of free-thinking LGBT films to the always-impressive Oriental Theatre and UWM’s Union Theatre Oct. 21-24. Florent: Queen of the Meat Market (2010), a documentary that brings to life the flurry of civil rights activism and flamboyant antics surrounding Florent, New York’s famous diner/community center.

Wisconsin Foodie host Kyle Cherek shares his perspective on the legendary New York diner, Florent:

New York has always been a city of restaurants and bars, but more to the point, places of gathering, protest, assertion of power and class, and unofficial foundations of movements. The powerbrokers have the Seagram’s building, and the 21 club, the smart set have Cipriani’s, the big spenders had Le Circ, and blue bloods have always had Doubles. The late 70’s and early 80’s art and rock and roll cognoscenti had Max’s Kansas City. Gay bars, long relegated underground, ignited some of the dynamite that was the Civil rights movement for detonation at the Stonewall Riots. If you were an artist, an actor, a drag queen or West Village neighbor in the mid 1980’s or early 90’s, your home was Florent.

To put the miracle of Florent in perspective, any New Yorker can tell you how the Meat Packing District has changed. I was there for some of those years. Sleepy streets by 6 or 7 pm, sheet metal loading dock roofs, a few literally underground gay and S&M bars, and an all but forgotten stretch of the High Line floating overhead like some malevolent cloud covering all of the naughtiness that went on there. We danced until 4 am at Mega Clubs like Mars, Palladium and The Tunnel. Bathrooms were always uni-sex, AIDS was just beginning to an acronym that the whole county was conscious of. Besides it was just a gay man’s disease right? Long before Diane Von Furstenberg moved her flagship store there, before Chelsea Market and the windows puking boutique after boutique in the same spaces were guys once carved up and packed animal carcasses, amid all that, was this shining light called Florent.

I drifted in as kid just, 20, I would maybe see a Movie star, for sure a Drag Queen, and definitely a drag queen that wanted to be a movie star. We all wanted to see, and be seen by Florent Morellett. Always sunny, laconic at times, engaging and, slightly rumpled in the manner only the French do so well. He made you feel like a New Yorker if you were a new one, and he made you feel like a star even if you were uncertain of it, but made it clear, like everything in New York, you had to earn it.

Long before the pageantry of the drag and art performances, the t-cell counts on the menu board, we all, everyone, went there for the food. It was the very essence of the conviviality of the table. Affordable, even cheap, it was American dinner meets French aplomb. Unaffected comfort food, grand in its ingredients and lack of haughtiness. It got you to or through your day and night, it made you feel at home, it was nothing short of the transmutation of love through food. I suppose he was a bit of a Foodie, before the tern existed. It was about what a meal together could do for people, not a rating of stars or from Zagat. In that Florent was and remains ahead of his time.

Hiseveryday cuisine has now become the tail of the tiger chefs all over America put on their white jackets everyday hoping to catch and make it seem effortless. So what’s a restaurant for? I don’t even know if Florent was a restaurant. I was something more, organic and real. Certainly, something too rare.

Kyle Cherek

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