Shep has no illusions about his life, or anyone else's, suddenly being perfect. he knows he and the kids are on a journey, doing the best they can. In the meantime, the L word flies. "We say it so much," Shep says: "'I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you...' Every communication, every text. It feels so good every time I read it.

When he was a younger man, Shep Gordon didn't imagine his future self as a dude on the loose, a bachelor extraordinaire. "It was never a vision of me sitting at a bar watching a football game," he says. "For me it was like, 'I'd love to pick a tomato from the garden with my kid and go eat it.' But I didn't have the kid or the garden." Nor could he even imagine how to attain such things, given his jaundiced impression of family, growing up. But Shep loved the fantasy, which might explain his obsession with the wholesomeness of Norman Rockwell, whose work he collects. "I've been to his museum in Massachusetts probably a hundred times," he says. "I love that innocence." Even his brief marriage to the Playboy Playmate had something tender at the core. "I really liked her—nice lady—but I thought she was pregnant, an that's really why we got married." In other words, he wanted kids.

Retired now except for one client, Alice Cooper, Shep spends most of his time at home in Maui with the view of Lanai and the high-drama sunsets; during the migratory season, humpback whales swim right past the house. Full of Balinese art and bamboo, it's a perfect place to be barefoot, to entertain, and to cook: During yet another chapter in his page-turner career, Shep minted the concept of the celebrity chef—turning his culinary mentor, Roger Vergé, along with Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and others into the A-list personalities they are now. Last September he was inducted into the Hawaii Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame for helping found the Hawaiian regional cuisine movement, which made dishes like seared ahi seem as accessible as mac and cheese.

Six years ago, at age 60, Shep gave marriage another spin, having fallen for raw food enthusiast and author Renée Loux, 30 years his junior. But even with a blessing from his friend the Dalai Lama, the union lasted only four years.

The Williams kids, though—they're forever. "I think the beauty of what we have is that there's no rules for what makes a family," Shep says. "We became a family in whatever way we could."

Someone says to him flatly, "You saved those kids' lives."

He looks almost surprised by the notion.

"No," Shep says, "they saved mine."

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