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Art Smith: A Slice of life
Extended Online Special
by TRACY BAIM
2007-09-12

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Food is life for Art Smith, Oprah's chef. Art Smith with Oprah, from her TV show. Art Smith pictured with Jesus Salgueiro. Photos by Hal Baim and Tracy Baim.

________

Food is life for chef Art Smith, and he's now planted more permanent roots in his adopted hometown of Chicago. Table 52 is his newest creation, a gorgeous new restaurant at 52 W. Elm in the city's Gold Coast neighborhood.

Smith, chef for Oprah Winfrey and an author of several cookbooks, is a down-to-earth Florida boy, always ready with a smile and a hug, and always willing to lend a helping hand. Smith and his partner Jesus Salgueiro donate their time to many causes, from children's cooking classes, to humanitarian aide, and most recently in helping to design the world-class kitchen at the new Center on Halsted.

As part of an ongoing Chicago LGBT history project I am working on, I sat down with Art at his new restaurant to discuss his life, his family, and the world of food. He was rushing back from California where he was preparing a gala for 2,000 Barack Obama supporters. Following are excerpts from the interview.

TB: Can you talk a little bit about the family structure that you grew up into?

AS: I grew up on a farm, my mother was the county tax collector, and my father worked three jobs. We had a family farm that had been in the family for over a hundred years, my father wanted to keep it that way, and as with any family farm, prevent it from being sold off. My life was inspired by these hardworking people. I never really wanted to become a farmer, but I respected what they did. I respected what it took to raise a calf, and to bring it to sale. I respected what it took to grow vegetables, corn. I also knew what it tasted like. I think many times today with our children, they are not aware of what things taste like. [ My parents ] were kids of the depression, and so they understood what it was to have and not have. … Recently I took my mom to South Africa to teach these wonderful little girls at a school, and now I'm taking her to another trip. It's like I've always known mom there at home in Jasper ( Florida ) , but not mom somewhere else with just me, in the world. She is a remarkable woman, and she taught me a lot.

TB: Let's talk about your teenage years in the early 1970s, and about your growing awareness of your sexual orientation.

AS: When I was a teenager, that's when I was really just exploding. I remember how I had a really amazing aunt, she was a fashion designer, and she was into fashion. She would come and visit, and she would just tell all these stories and stuff, and then when I got old enough, she would take me with her. I remember the first time she took me with her. I came back to Jasper, population 450, and I had velvet pants on and a silk shirt. And everyone looked at me like 'What are you doing?' I was discovering myself. I think that one of the things, when you grow up in these small communities, I can see how the kids rebel, and my way of rebelling was that I would wear outrageous clothes. I've never had problems meeting people and stuff like that, but it was hard growing up because I was different, and I was called 'sissy' from the time I was five, until high school. One of the things that I did was to really get back at them. I had this incredible relationship with these girls at school, and of course they were the prettiest. And so I devised a plan that I would run for student body president, and I would get all the prettiest girls in school to run my campaign. I wrote a song, the whole nine yards. I won it. Well, that was just complete attitude adjustment for all the kids, no one said another word, because they were just amazed that I could just like get all these people together. I think every young gay person deals with all kinds of things, I mean, I will say I wasn't abused, probably the worst that I've ever gotten is 'sissy'. … Then I went to college on a scholarship. So people didn't mess with me, because I was different, but I also had a talent that would also keep me up there, and you know my parents were very proud of me, a lot of family was like 'why can't you be like Art, be creative and do things?' But anyway, I remember my senior prom date, Susan, who came out also … so here we were the queen and king of the prom. She's the same way; we have no bad feelings about growing up. I think what's important regardless of your sexual orientation is that you have to really know what you want. … Young people need more mentors, they need more heroes. They need more people to look up to and say, 'I want to be like that'. What's happened, what you find now is that Hollywood has become the new mentors of the culture.

TB: Let's review the stages of your career. You created this path, and nobody handed it to you.

AS: When I was going to school at Florida State, I was not a good student. The dean recognized the fact that I was very talented, and I started helping out with parties and I was good at it. If you remember, it's around 1980, Martha Stewart had just come out with Entertaining. One thing that I could do, I could look at that book and reproduce it. Which later became a plus for me in my career. So people would hire me to do parties because I was so good, and this is in Tallahassee. The dean said, 'The governor is having a party, he needs some help. Maybe you should go help him.' So I went over there, and they wanted me to wait tables, I didn't want to do that, so I said I wanted to work in the kitchen, which I did. They liked me because I could take their very simple food and make it pretty. So I started doing that at parties for Gov. Bob Graham. Three months later I was hired as his chef, and I was open then. I came out in 1983, I was 23. … I was out to the community, and I had also met a lot of other great people in the community and so I was really a force to be reckoned with, and I loved to cook, too. So I started with the governor, and then I started cooking for different people, and my first big person I cooked for was Mikhail Baryshnikov, then the American Ballet, then I cooked for some other real great people … [ And then I ] worked on this $10 million yacht [ for ] a multi-millionaire. I decided about that time that I was going to be personal chef to the rich and famous. Which is a very great occupation. You also find that a lot of people in personal services to great people are gay. It's amazing; some of the most famous singers and entertainment people have gay personal assistants. We're just the best, I mean, we do a great job. Anyway I was working on the yacht, and I did that for several years, and I decided I was tired of being on the water, and I went back home to Tallahassee and I opened a little restaurant, which was a charming little place way ahead of its time, people loved it, loved me. [ But ] I needed to be in a bigger place. I had heard about this wonderful train being built that was fashioned after the Orient Express called the American European Express. I finagled my way into getting a job on it as a chef, and I became the chef on that train and traveled around America on it, which was really fascinating. Which led me to Chicago, and I got to Chicago, the big Windy City. … I'll never forget walking off that train and how cold it was, and it was just amazing. I went to my apartment, I lived on the 18th floor at 1400 Lake Shore, and it was just a total new experience. Then I realized that there was just a great big world, and then I thought, wow. It's a big city, how am I going to get to know everybody? What I did was, I started doing little things, and I had an opportunity to do something at a department store. I saw the Williams Sonoma cooking classes, and I said I'm just going to just walk right down there and give them my resume. So I walked in and there was a lady there. She said 'Who are you?' and I said Art Smith, and I said I want to teach a cooking class. She said, 'Well what do you do?' And I showed her my stuff and, it was like kismet, her name was Freda, and Freda's husband was the godfather to Donald Graham, which was Gov. Bob Graham's nephew. Small world. So I got the job and started teaching at Williams Sonoma, and developed a following. Then Freda calls me and says, 'You know Art, I got this interesting call. Martha Stewart is looking for a chef in the Chicago area to do parties for her new magazine, and I recommended you because you used to do such beautiful parties.' So Martha Stewart's magazine hired me to do parties for them. Which led to doing more stuff for Martha in New York, and so I did five years of that. During that time, I had moved up here with a boyfriend. Working for Martha was tough, I'm telling you. If anybody has any idea what perfection is, I want to tell you something. Webster should have another word for perfection, because I want to tell you, Martha could give you a new definition of perfection. Love her. Even at the times that she would drive me crazy, I'd be like, I don't know. But these days I laugh. But you know what, every thing that happens in your life, every experience you gain from it. I don't think I would have a lot of the knowledge and the attention to detail that I have if it wasn't for Martha. I always tell these funny little stories in my cooking class, I say 'you know, one thing that Martha taught me, you live life once, so make sure it's pretty.'

I used to wear out boyfriends in my career. I came to Chicago with a really nice boyfriend who is now a great friend of mine, PJ, who is a wonderful writer, and wore him out. Then I had another, met a sweet boy from Indiana, and wore him out, too. Then I met a wonderful guy, Dell Williams, dear friend of mine, who is no longer with us, but he loved all my craziness and everything, and we moved out to Pullman [ on Chicago's Far South Side ] . What was great about Pullman was that you had all this space and every kind of chotchky possible. … So I lived out there, then I burned Dell out, and moved downtown. You know relationships are tough, and what makes them even tougher is when you involve them in business. I think I was always looking for a boyfriend that would be a business manager. Now I finally realize I don't need a boyfriend to be a business manager, I just need a boyfriend to love me. And I have Jesus.

In the last year of my relationship with Dell, I was asked to do a party at a friend's home, and I was serving a dinner, and a man came up to me, and I didn't know who he was, and he said, 'I know someone that really would love you.' ... It was Oprah's hairdresser. [ Some time later ] there was a message on my answering machine that said, 'Would you come to Harpo and make lunch?' And I made lunch for three months without ever meeting her. Then I got a call that said Miss Winfrey would like to meet you. I thought, oh no, the Good Ship Lollipop done sunk, here I had this wonderful job, I make lunch, I leave, whatever. I walked in her office, and she goes 'Art, I need a chef.' And I'm like, hmm. She goes 'Do you know a chef?' I said, 'Yeah, I know a chef!' She said, 'Would you like to be my chef?' And I said, 'I think so!' So I got excited, I ran and called my mother.

While I was working for Oprah, she had all these houses, and she had a great house in Fisher Island, which is right next to South Beach. I was going out to buy flowers, and I was kind of sad because I was in-between boyfriends, and I went to go buy flowers … and there's this little adorable man, smiling at me. And I'm going like 'Mmm, hi, how are you?' and that was it. A year later … we got together. … I don't know if it was him or the pizza, but it was so good, and a great relationship started.

Jesus had this amazing ability to see me as a talent, and say 'let's focus, let's gather, let's frame it'. We'd only been together a month, and he said, 'You need to write a book, it's very important.' So I wrote a book, Back to the Table, my first book, and [ Oprah and I ] did a show. It became an instant New York Times bestseller. Flew off the shelf, and sold more than any cookbook at that time. Then all of the sudden, one of the most horrific things in our country's history happened, the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. We were stunned. I said, 'Jesus, I gotta go, I've got to go check on Oprah.' So I ran to the studio, and I said, 'What can I do for you?' And she said, 'Art, just cook something good.' So we cooked, you know good food and good times, and sad times. When we hurt, there's nothing that feels better than something good to eat. I grew up in the south, and historically, that's how it is. I think in every culture they do that.

TB: I think that really transitions nicely into giving back to the community: Common Threads, Chefs for Humanity, and then the work with Center on Halsted. Can you talk about these and other things you've done?

AS: After that horrific event, Jesus and I were invited to New York to cook for some of the victim's families, which totally changed our lives. Then we were given a private tour of ground zero by Mayor Giuliani's office, and I baked cookies and gave them out to the rescue workers, and it was amazing, and witnessing all that, there was still trouble, and smoke, it was terrible. … So we came back, and Jesus was in his studio painting. Artists have done testaments to those events and they have paintings and stories, and I decided that I wanted to write something, so I started writing something called Common Threads. And I wrote the world is a quilt, its people, the fabric, are all joined together by common threads. ... During that period, Jesus had bought an old historic building, and we were going to do some type of art center. But I was really kind of interested in creating some kind of program. We felt that our children needed to be educated more about the world, and one of the best ways to educate them is through food. And you have to start with children, children are the future, and so I had started on a second book called Kitchen Life and I took my advance and gave it to Linda [ Novick-O'Keefe ] , and said, 'Linda, make it work.' And her husband to be was a lawyer, and he made it legal. We started [ Common Threads ] with 20 kids in the basement, I couldn't get any sponsorship in the beginning, but Le Creuset of France came through and sponsored it. [ The Annenberg Foundation has since underwritten a major part of the Common Threads program. ] It's enabled us to teach hundreds and hundreds of kids in the city of Chicago, and we now have one in Mississippi, at the Oprah Winfrey Boys and Girls Club, we're opening one in Los Angeles, I would eventually like to open them across America.

I got involved in Chefs for Humanity because Cat [ Cora, president ] was a friend of mine, and I believed too that it was one way of really helping people. They had a baptism by fire when [ hurricane ] Katrina hit, and Cat's organization went and helped in Mississippi.

TB: What about the Center on Halsted?

AS: A couple years ago, we were called by the Center on Halsted, and Jesus and I felt like a genuine need to really get involved. … We must have places where our young people, whether they're gay, whether they're straight, whatever … the fact is that all children need heroes, all children need direction, all children need after-school programs that will keep them busy. Our children get in trouble when they get bored. What's wonderful about the Center on Halsted is that it creates programming that enriches these children's lives; as well as feeding children, as well as acting as support for their parents.

TB: Let's talk about Table 52, and your other work now.

AS: You know, I'm a big believer in multitasking. I don't believe in just sticking with one thing, you always have to have a parachute. … The reason I have this great restaurant is because Oprah said, 'You need to do it Art.' And here we are, Table 52. Isn't it pretty? Table 52 came to me, and it's a really beautiful.

Every year I'm going to go on a good-will trip. This year we're going to work with Aboriginal children in the Outback, last year I went to South Africa, next year we'll go to India, different places. I'm interested in doing international work with children that revolves around food. I've got a new book out Back to Family, which has been well received. My focus now is more on preserving things, like I'm really interested in organic farming and helping with that, that's a big concern of mine. I think it's important that our city get a market.

TB: Are there things that inspire you about Oprah that people on a day-to-day basis wouldn't see?

AS: Oprah Winfrey has more energy than the Energizer Bunny. I want to tell you, she can work. I am so impressed with her energy and integrity, and her love for humanity. She's the same way, I mean she's been bestowed every honor, but she still believes, 'There's more that I can do.' We're in the midst right now of trying to get a man [ Barack Obama ] elected for president [ laughs ] . There's hope on the way.

TB: Can you tell us a little bit about the restaurant?

AS: Table 52 is a collection of all the inspirations throughout my life; you'll find little bits of this and that because it's the journey. The napkin rings are jade bracelets from China. You'll find a little bit of Asian flavors on the menu. A lot of southern: fried green tomatoes, fried chicken. Most importantly, what I tell my team here at Table 52 is that we just want people to feel at home. It's pretty, and we want it to be pretty, but the fact is that it's home and it tastes good. We've gotten an incredible response. What I like about it is, that it enables us to feed people. You know, when you nourish people, you can't get any closer than that. And we've gotten a totally different relationship with people. Before I was just cooking for fancy, rich famous people, and now I'm just cooking for everybody. Everybody says, 'well, not everybody can get into your restaurant.' Well, hopefully we'll have more seats very soon.

TB: You know that you are one block away from the very first gay community center? It was a block away from here in 1971.

AS: How wonderful is that?

TB: I think the karma is with you on that one.

AS: I hope so. I am a big believer in karma. Well thank god it has been really good and I'm just happy that I found Chicago. I'm just happy that I have great people in my life.

TB: Is there something in terms of your industry, the whole cooking field that you can say in terms of being a gay man?

AS: I think that, in general being gay and being in the entertainment industry is a plus. I think that it's always worked out well for me. I've never felt any kind of mistreatment because of being gay in the industry. I think that some of the most talented people in cooking are gay, and it's a wonderful profession. I don't think I've been successful because I am gay, I think I've been successful because I knew what I wanted, and I knew where I came from, and I was comfortable with who I was as a person. That is, if anyone says 'What's your key to success?' [ Snaps ] gotta know what you want, [ snaps ] and you gotta be comfortable with who you are as a person.

TB: Do you see TV in your future?

AS: Probably.

TB: What would be a goal for you in terms of being able to teach, maybe a children's show for cooking or something?

AS: I want to do a children's show, but I think what's more important, I want to show the world we're all alike, and I want to do something called World Table, showing people the world, how the world comes together at the table, and how they interact with food, and their families and children.

TB: Tell us more about Jesus?

AS: My partner of eight years is Jesus Ramos Salgueiro, from Venezuela. He is a great man; he's enabled me to see the world a different way. I love his love for children; I love his love for color, for nature, for art. A great person can make another person a great person. … Jesus is the first person in my life that my mother has loved. They have a good old time, she paints, he paints, they have a really great time. I think it's important in any relationship, and I would say this to anyone, you have to be patient, you have to realize that you're not going to always agree. One of the things about not always agreeing is that you never get bored. It doesn't mean that we fight all the time, we do have our little moments, but the fact is, we really understand and respect the fact of who we are as people. When it comes down to just our feelings about what is important, we're right there. The importance of supporting children, we're right there. The importance of really supporting the community, we're right there.

See Windy City Times in the coming months for more interview excerpts from the Chicago LGBT History Project. For details contact Tracy Baim: editor@windycitymediagroup.com .


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