Art Smith, Celebrity Chef
Take it from me, not smiling after a single chat with celebrity Chef Art Smith is a scientific impossibility. I dare anyone to try and keep a poker face in the presence of the telegenic 54-year-old Top Chef master. The fact that he also happens to be Oprah Winfrey's favorite chef, well, that's just gravy.
A few years ago, a dear friend and Hispanic television culinary superstar, Ingrid Hoffmann, asked me to join her in Miami at the Mandarin Oriental for an al fresco lunch to meet Art Smith and, to be honest, I was a little more than ambivalent about it. As a longtime, somewhat cynical, Manhattan-based editor in chief, the persona I had imagined Smith to be seemed, well, just a tad cloying. Boy, am I ever glad I went. The actual experience of being in Art Smith's presence is so intoxicating and silly-joyful you may as well have inhaled laughing gas at the dentist. Smith, with his hilarious tales from his extraordinary life, is simply the human form of the drug "ecstasy" (what Miley Cyrus musically refers to as "Molly" as she twerks with her tongue sticking out). In simpler terms, Chef Art Smith is flat-out awesome.
A graduate of Florida State University, Smith got his first big break preparing his Southern cuisine magic for former Florida governor and US Senator, Bob Graham. By the time the most powerful woman on the planet (you know who) discovered Smith in Chicago, he was already a James Beard Award-winning chef wowing the Windy City at his signature, can't-miss restaurant, Table Fifty-Two. But when the one and only Oprah locks in on you and declares your food simply amazing, well, let's just say Mr. Smith had overnight success decades in the making.
A fan favorite on numerous television cooking competition shows -- most notably Bravo's twin foodie ratings juggernauts, Top Chef and Top Chef Masters -- Smith is not only ridiculously talented in the kitchen as well as being a dedicated philanthropist, but it's his sense of humor, his perpetual cat-who-ate-the-canary smile, his let-me-tell-you-a-story enthusiasm for life that charms the cynicism right out of you the moment you first lay eyes on him. And that, friends, is something that can't be taught. Not even a little.
I recently caught up with the always-on-the-go Smith for the first time since he married his longtime partner, Jesus Salgueiro, and asked him a few questions I really wanted to know and, as usual, he didn't disappoint. I really think even Miley Cyrus may want to take a well-seasoned bite out of this particular happy celebrity chef. And, truth be told, who could blame her?
Was there a singular moment with Oprah that you thought, "My life is about to change?"
You know, Richard, from a little holiday party when a nice man complimented me on my cassoulet it all changed when not a month later I was catering a party for Senator Bob Graham -- my former boss -- and I got a voicemail telling me to go to Harpo Studios [Oprah Winfrey's company] and make lunch. I was so excited that I can't remember how I got home that night but I ended up making lunch over there for three months without ever meeting Oprah in person. Then one day she called and I was afraid I had been dismissed.
Instead, she asked me if I knew of a chef I could recommend to her and I said, "Yes, Ma'am--me!" At that moment, my life changed forever.
If you could create your own TV show...
I've competed on every food competition show in recent history all thanks to Bravo and [Top Chef producers] Magical Elves. My love for humanity and being such an advocate for necessary change would lead me to do a reality show called Turning America By Chef Art Smith. Believe me, things will get pretty on that show [Laughs].
If you had to eat the same meal every day...
I've dined all over the world, of course, but my mother's chicken and dumplings and Iris Davis' chicken noodle vegetable soup would be my clear choices. Not only do those foods comfort me, more importantly, they get dearer every time I have it.
Where is Art Smith in five years? Ten years?
I recently became a "Culinary Diplomat" with the US State Department America Chefs Corps. We traveled to Israel and Palestine before heading to Iraq and other places in the world that desperately need to see the light of humanity. These beautiful, enchanting historical places draw me in and redefine my role not only as a chef, but, more importantly, as an American. So that's where you'll find me going forward: Cooking good food and spreading humanity.
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