Art Smith, executive chef to the stars, is a celebrity in his own right. He won’t see it that way if you ask him; he’ll be quick to tell you that he’s just a normal guy from north Florida. His reputation precedes him, however.
He is well-known for owning four restaurants, in Chicago, Washington D.C., Palo Alto, and Atlanta. He has been the go-to chef for many household names, such as former Florida governor Bob Graham, talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, and pop smash sensation Lady Gaga. He has written four cookbooks; the most recent, Art Smith’s Healthy Comfort, was published last year. Finally, he has become a television fan favorite, in part due to his appearances on seasons one and four of the Bravo reality series Top Chef Masters (he will be appearing in the upcoming Top Chef Duels, which will debut in August). How many everyday people can boast such accomplishments?
I was very honored to speak with Chef Art Smith in this exclusive interview for Hotspots’ first-ever Foodie Issue.
How did growing up in Florida specifically influence your cooking style?
Well, I grew up in “the other state,” North Florida. It’s just another kind of culture there and there’s an older feel. My family line consists of six generations of Floridians. Food’s just a very important part of our culture. I grew up with my mother and my grandmothers and my aunts and they were all just amazing cooks.
You’re based in Chicago at the present time. Would you ever consider moving back to Florida?
I’m working on a business and community initiative in my hometown. I’m from Jasper, Florida, and that’s in Hamilton County. The city and the county is the poorest in the state of Florida and the county is the 35th poorest in the nation. This area of Florida was traditionally a very agricultural part of the state, with lots of tobacco and timber. A lot of diversity came to town with the agriculture.
The town is run by two great women and they gave me two buildings to use, so I can bring my Common Threads program to town, and also build a Community Café in partnership with Starbucks.
Our priority is the work in my hometown but if I did decide to move anywhere else or open up a restaurant anywhere else, it would definitely be in Miami. My husband Jesus [Salgueiro] and I met in Miami. We go there often. Lorena Garcia lives there and we spend a lot of time with her.
What part of Miami?
We would probably consider Biscayne Park and Miami Shores, that area.
You mentioned Common Threads briefly. Tell us a little more about that.
Common Threads is our after-school kids’ cooking program which was started in our neighborhood in Chicago ten years ago. It was an idea that Jesus had, and he thought that by teaching kids about art and about food, we could see some great changes in their lives. We started with a few kids, and it grew dramatically. Now we give 47,000 kids across the country free cooking lessons.
In Miami, Chef Michelle Bernstein is the godmother of the program. It’s an after-school activity in about twenty schools in Miami-Dade County, and we’re in these schools thanks to a grant given to us by the Walmart Foundation. There is also a “Common Threads Camp” which kids can attend and participate in educational activities.
You may have heard about the Barilla pasta incident from a year ago…
Yes, when the CEO said that the pasta wasn’t for gay families.
Well, I threw a “Take the Hate off the Plate” party. And apparently Mr. Barilla heard about it all the way in Parma, Italy, and contacted me. We had a meeting and he was very apologetic. I said, “Sir, I understand, we all make mistakes,” but I let him know that you have to prove to people in actions that you don’t feel that way anymore. I told him that the best way to turn a wrong into a right would be to facilitate the teaching of diversity to children. So he paid for kids in three cities to attend a special Cooking Camp.
What’s been the biggest compliment you’ve received as a restaurateur?
It’s little things, like when I’m on a plane, and I’m sitting next to someone who I don’t know from Adam’s kitty cat, and I turn to them and I introduce myself, and they gasp and say, “Oh my God, I love your restaurant.” That someone I’m sitting next to on a plane might love me and I wouldn’t even know it. Unexpected love is always great. It’s a great compliment.
You’ve worked as executive chef for many well-known names. What were these experiences like?
I worked for former governor Bob Graham and the whole Graham family, and they are such great people. They’re a real down-home American family. They loved my grilled cheese. [laughs] Oprah, coming from Mississippi, she’s very Southern. She loved my fried chicken, my Southern desserts, my biscuits, all of that. But then she’d come to me and ask me to prepare chopped salad, which she loved. I just prepared the food for the wrap party for her movie Selma, and I also prepared the food at her request for the memorial of Dr. Maya Angelou, which was a very solemn and moving event.
I’m working with the gorgeous Joe Manganiello right now; I just threw him a party at Lady Gaga’s family’s restaurant in New York. I’m also cooking for Lady Gaga’s family very soon for the artRAVE show in Dallas. They love my hummingbird cake.
Lady Gaga and I have been friends for years now and what I love about her is that she’s very sincere. She loves the people I love and I feel that’s very special.
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