Chef Art Smith has prepared meals for everyone from Oprah Winfrey to President Barak Obama. Windy City Times visited his kitchen to find out what's cooking in Mr. Smith's life.
Windy City Times: Hi, Art! So you are originally from Florida, correct?
Art Smith: Yes that is where I met Jesus, my partner. It's where I worked for the governor of Florida and also for Oprah when she lived down here.
WCT: How did you meet the painter Jesus Salgueiro?
ART SMITH: I was looking for a florist and Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger expressed to Oprah that the best place in town was called "Pistils & Petals." I started buying flowers there. I saw this really adorable man with blue eyes that smiled at me and I smiled back. One time I was feeling sorry for myself and saying there was no love in my life. A dear friend of mine said, "Jesus loves you." I said, "Tell me something I don't know. Of course Jesus loves me!" But he was talking about Jesus the florist and I called him up and made a date.
WCT: What was your first date like?
ART SMITH: Well, Oprah lived on this island called "Fisher Island." So I took a ferry to meet him and when he got out of his truck, I asked him to marry me. I am sure he thought, "This guy is crazy!" We went and had pizza. We are now celebrating our 10th anniversary.
ART SMITH: We have a pizza restaurant and a pizza oven in my backyard. Good pizza is like good love.
WCT: What do you like on your pizza?
ART SMITH: We like thin crust pizza with a little bit of tomato, cook that with cheese then throw on some arugula and Lucini extra virgin olive oil. That's how we eat it all the time, and we are very specific.
WCT: You are making me hungry.
ART SMITH: Oh, we also put on a little prosciutto but that's at the end. You don't really want to cook it.
WCT: What's your favorite thing to cook?
ART SMITH: My favorite thing to cook is dessert because everyone remembers it. When I was 21, I worked at Williams-Sonoma where these fancy ladies in the Gold Coast adored this southern boy that would teach them how to make a biscuit. I did dinner parties and that's how I met Martha Stewart and, eventually, Oprah.
WCT: How was cooking for Ms. Winfrey?
ART SMITH: I cooked for her personally for 10 years. It was no different than when I was working for the governor of Florida or other people that I had worked for. You are there for them personally or when they have guests. That's how it works. You are there to make life easier. That's how my life went.
WCT: How did you get along together?
ART SMITH: Both being from the South, we had a lot in common. I loved the food growing up; Oprah was happy that I thought nothing is more sacred than a bowl of greens and a biscuit. She said to me one time, "You have a spirit of a Black woman in you."
WCT: How was your experience on Bravo TV's Top Chef Masters?
ART SMITH: People loved that whole southern persona. We are taught to be charming in the South: "Bees are more attracted to honey."
WCT: Well, look at Paula Deen.
ART SMITH: Exactly; they don't care if there is a heart attack on a plate, they just the love the fact that she gives a lot of charm. On Top Chef there was no sense of trying to booby-trap anyone. We really enjoyed the camaraderie with each other.
WCT: I work at a restaurant in Andersonville.
ART SMITH: So you know what I mean. We all get in the "weeds" ( restaurant term for when someone is overwhelmed ) . Restaurants are a fragile business. One day you can be really popular and the next out of business.
WCT: Do you have any advice for budding new chefs out there?
ART SMITH: It is very important to get some good training, whether it's a culinary school or finding a mentor, someone that will take the time to teach you. Also, you need to look at who you are and what you are. Everyone has a gift. The more authentic that you are the more marketable and sellable you will be. I ain't Italian, I ain't French and I am not going to cook any of that. Yes, I make a pizza but it's not who I am. I think it's important to cook who you are.
WCT: You co-founded your own charity.
ART SMITH: It's called Common Threads. Jesus and I had been invited to New York after the terrorism attacks by Oprah to cook for the families. Jesus is a painter and I had written a best-seller called Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family. I thought why can't a cookbook inspire people? We started "Common Threads" to show that we are really not that different and food is a beautiful way to get to know each other.
WCT: You have such amazing opportunities with your job.
ART SMITH: By a leap of faith, I met Charles Annenberg Weingarten who has a daughter to eat vegetables. A piece of broccoli gave the charity a million dollars. We are in four cities now, LA, Miami, DC, and Chicago. By cooking for all these people I have been able to do some good. Food is precious and personal. When you have taken care of people on that level, it's a sacred thing.
WCT: Do you love living in Hyde Park?
ART SMITH: I do. I love the fact that it's multicultural. It's everything that I believe in. It's wall-to-wall activists!
WCT: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Chicago?
ART SMITH: I love Paul Kahan, so The Publican and Blackbird. Those are my favorites.
WCT: What other projects do you have on the back-burner?
ART SMITH: I am looking in Atlanta to open an Art Smith restaurant, [ and ] an opportunity to open one in South Africa before the World Cup games. The reason [ is ] ] that I spent a lot of time in South Africa at the Oprah school teaching cooking.
In the new year I am cooking for his holiness, the Dalai Lama. I would also like to see more Common Threads in different cities.
To keep up with Art Smith's busy life visit www.commonthreads.org and
www.chefartsmith.com . For more with Art, see this week's issue of Nightspots.