Sure, he rose to culinary fame as Oprah’s longtime personal chef, but there’s so much more—and less these days—to Art Smith.
The guru of Southern cuisine is newly lean after losing more than 100 pounds, and embarking on a lifestyle makeover.
The two-time James Beard award-winning chef—who’s traveled the world and cooked for everyone from the Obamas to the Dalai Lama—is still preparing food the way he likes it.
After sharing a meal that included small plates of buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes, salad greens, and house-made mini beignets, Smith dished a bit about food, combating hunger and several new ventures.
Donna M. Owens: Besides contributing over the years to O, the Oprah magazine, you are also the author of three award-winning cookbooks: Back to the Table; Kitchen Life: Real Food for Real Families; and Back to the Family. Tell me, why do you cook?
Art Smith: First of all, I love to cook. I’m passionate about food, and I’m passionate about people. I love the idea of how food comforts, how it nourishes us. Most importantly, there’s not a cook that doesn’t love how a good meal brings a smile to a person’s face—just that interaction, pleasing people.
DO: For you, where does that love and passion stem from?
AS: I think it’s something that comes from my family. Raised by my mother, my grandmothers, watching them cook for the family and I loved it. And even in my training—I’ve worked for a lot of amazing chefs—watching their reaction and also their passion, in preparing a meal.
DO: In your cookbooks, you write with such fondness for the South, where you were raised in a small community in Florida. How does that inform your cooking?
AS: I think what’s important in whatever you do in life, that you’re authentic. I’m not French; I’m from the South. I grew up in the South and the majority of my life was spent there. It is who I am, it’s part of my soul. I was raised in this incredible place with amazing history. It’s something that just comes to me very naturally.
When you grow up watching biscuits being made—how could you not like a biscuit? And pork is big in the South. We say you eat everything but the squeal. And there’s a lot of great things from glazed ham to amazing barbecue. But one of the things people forget about the South is that we also have a rich agrarian culture, so we have lots of fresh vegetables. In many places things have changed, but there truly is a farm-to-table [philosophy].
My most favorite thing about Southern cooking is that it has a really rich baking heritage. Lots of amazing cakes, from red velvet cake, to Lady Baltimore cake, to Hummingbird cake, to great chocolate cake. There’s a lot of really wonderful cakes and puddings. And also, lots of great candy: peanut brittle, pralines. It’s all this great, wonderful tradition.
DO: Speaking of Hummingbird cake, I ordered that while dining a few years ago at your Chicago restaurant, Table Fifty-Two. Like the rest of the meal, it was beyond delicious.
AS: I think half the world has had Table Fifty-Two Hummingbird cake! It’s amazing, the power of Oprah Winfrey: we made that cake 10 years ago on the show. I tell you, at the end of the day, it’ll be, “He made great Hummingbird cake and delicious fried chicken,” because that recipe is in the cake hall of fame!
Even Egyptians understand the power of Oprah Winfrey. Check out: Rebuilding Egyptian Tourism: Facebook, Oprah Winfrey & The Return Of Travel Companies
DO: You have received kudos for your work with Common Threads [a non-profit Smith founded in 2003 that teaches children about diversity and tolerance through meal preparation and fun]. You’ve won awards, cooked for world leaders, and done so much. What’s next for you?
AS: There are different things that I want to do. I’ve cooked for possibly every person in the solar system, but I am really interested in going to cook for the troops, wherever they may be around the world, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that these hardworking men and women who put their lives on the line, need some comfort, love. And most importantly, bring an element of health.
I’m excited about opening other restaurants that are Southern inspired. In fact, we’re doing one in Atlanta called Red Velvet, a Southern supper club that I’m excited about.
DO: What’s the projected open date?
AS: Late summer. I’ve already started enticing Atlanta folks about it. I spent some time with [filmmaker] Tyler Perry, and I’ve got these wonderful caramel rolls that I make, and I named them after him—Tyler rolls. So I’m excited. We get a lot of people from Atlanta at the other restaurant. Atlanta, for most Southern people, is the New York City of the South, and it’s that place where everybody goes. It’s an amazing city so I’m excited about going there.
DO: What else do you have percolating?
AS: I’m also excited too, that we’re doing a healthy concept called Lyfe Kitchen. This all happened after my weight loss. Some former McDonald executives wanted to put together a quick serve, healthy concept. And so I’ve been working with them and advising them, doing the menu. There’s no fryer, there’s no butter. All the fruits and vegetables are organic. Desserts are vegan. So we’re trying very hard to really create healthy, affordable, quick serve foods. The first will be in Palo Alto, California, and there’s projections for other ones across the country.
DO: That sounds exciting.
AS: Well, it is exciting. The fact is, America needs affordable, available health, whether it’s health care or food. Having access is the most important thing. I was talking with new [Chicago] Mayor Rahm Emanuel—and he said, we’re gonna work real hard to end this “food deserts” issue that we have in Chicago, and in urban areas across the country, as well as rural areas. Sadly, you know, a lot of Americans go hungry. Particularly children and women. And this is something that should not happen.
You won’t go hungry with this article: Three Days, Nine Meals: Chicago Restaurant Guide.
One of the things that I realize from traveling around world with Miss Winfrey and also in my personal travel, is that we don’t realize most of the world, they’re challenged with the same challenges we have. We live in a world economy—from finances, but most importantly, culturally.
I was in China, Shanghai, and [local] people were telling me, the same thing is happening there, as in this country, in terms of people having problems from processed food.
I think all these challenges we have, the best way to handle them is together. Together we can solve these problems. No one in this world should go hungry. We can all work together in terms of education. That can set us free, that is going to correct the problems we have, whether they be from a health standpoint, or whether they be, politics to culture. The more we view ourselves as a world community, and not as this kind of polarized community, that we can be a lot more successful.
DO: Is food the common denominator?
AS: I don’t know anything that wasn’t done wonderfully without food involved. Honey, the Lord himself had the last supper, OK! And there’s King Arthur’s table and so on. Every event in history, food has been a part of it. I’m a big believer, you don’t have a meeting unless you have food! It don’t work. Food is the catalyst that engages us, it comforts us, it brings up together. We love the taste of food, we love to interact with it. I hope we all love to share our food, that’s one of the great lessons of life when you’re a little kid, is learn to share. So I think it’s very, very important.
By Donna M. Owens for PeterGreenberg.com. Donna M. Owens is an award-winning journalist based in Baltimore who reports for print, broadcast and online outlets nationwide.
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Maryland Style Fried Chicken
(created for Oprah Winfrey)
2 skin on, bone in chicken breasts
2 boneless chicken thigh
2 chicken drums
1 qt buttermilk
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp ground black peppercorn
1 tbsp cayenne
2 cups self rising flour
1 cup crumbled corn flakes
1 tbsp kosher salt
2 tsp granulated garlic
- Marinate chicken at least 2 hours prior to cooking
- Preheat oven to 350°
- Preheat fryer to 350°
- Remove chicken from marinade and let drain, do not pat dry
- Bread each piece of chicken separately, making sure there is an even coat on all sides
- Place the breasts in the fryer for 3 minutes, until golden brown
- Place the breasts on an oven rack placed on top of a sheet pan and cover with aluminum foil; Place in preheated oven (The chicken breasts will take more time, so start with them first)
- Repeat with chicken thighs and drums, then add to rack with breasts and cover with aluminum; Cook for 10 more minutes
Art Smith’s Goat Cheese Drop Biscuits
Makes 12 biscuits
2 cups King Arthur self-rising flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) cold butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) goat cheese
1 cup (8 ounces) buttermilk
Extra butter to grease pan and top biscuits
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Place one 10-inch cast-iron pan into the oven while it is preheating. Place flour and salt powder into a medium sized bowl. Cut in the butter and goat cheese. Make a well in the middle of the ingredients and pour in the milk. Stir until the mix is moistened, adding an extra tablespoon of milk if needed.
Remove the hot skillet from the oven and place a tablespoon of butter into it. When the butter has melted, drop 1/4 cupfuls of batter into the pan, (use a muffin scoop to drop the batter if you have one). Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter. Bake from 14-16 minutes until browned on the top and bottom. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese. Enjoy warm!