Any preconceptions I harbor about Art Smith, the man best known as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, are dispelled within the first minutes of a recent telephone interview. Smith is coming to Wegmans Market in Nassau Park on Saturday, August 25, for a cooking demo and to sign copies of his newest book, "Back to the Family."
First off, the man answers his cell phone himself. No gatekeepers whatsoever. Second, when he mentions that he is in Hawaii, my mind immediately questions why any serious chef would go on vacation when his debut restaurant – in this case Table Fifty-Two in Chicago – opened mere days earlier. Turns out that Smith is in Hawaii for professional reasons – to honor a commitment he made last year to a friend, award-winning Honolulu chef Alan Wong, to participate in a charity event for Easter Seals. Third, whenever he mentions his illustrious employer, he respectfully calls her "Miss Winfrey." Darned if this sweet, polite, sincere Southern boy doesn’t win me over completely.
It soon becomes clear that Smith’s heart is tied up with his restaurant, which seats all of 35. The menu features his takes on the traditional Southern food he grew up on – food that is also at the center of his cookbooks, which include the New York Times best-selling "Back to the Table," which won a James Beard Award in 2002, and the new book, "Back to the Family: Food Tastes Better Shared with the Ones You Love" (Thomas Nelson. $29.99). Smith will cook sample dishes from his new book at the Wegman’s event.
For the last 10 years Art Smith has been personal chef to Oprah and her partner, Stedman Graham, and it is to them he dedicates his latest book. In it, we learn that Oprah is partial to omelets and artichokes, but not much more. Although he is no longer Oprah’s day-to-day chef ("I don’t make breakfast, for example"), he is still in charge of her parties, and is currently working on what he refers to as "Obama Fest" and other upcoming affairs at Oprah’s mansion.
He says that Oprah has been traveling these days, so hadn’t yet visited Table Fifty-Two but that Stedman has dined there and enjoyed it very much. "My objective is to serve beautiful, delicious home food in a restaurant setting," he says. "I want the feeling of a place where people come, sit, and have something good to eat. People seem to have forgotten what good home cooking tastes like, and that it is as good as haute cuisine," he says in as forceful a voice as this gentle man can muster. "Why not give a restaurant the same feeling – elegant yet casual?"
The elegance of Table Fifty-Two comes by way of a $1.2 million makeover of a 5,000 square foot turn-of-the-century building on Chicago’s Gold Coast. "Twenty years ago, when I first came to Chicago, I wanted to buy this place. It has a cottage feel and it needed to be a charming little restaurant," he says. He had the stone floors and woodwork restored to their original condition. "I had the china custom made and painted by a woman in Chicago who works with Katrina victims," he says with pride.
The flatware and crystal are custom designed, as well. "Every detail has a story," he says. "In China, I fell in love with jade and began using jade bracelets as napkin rings, so I use them in the restaurant, too. I believe that wherever you go, you take back some inspiration for your daily life," he adds, sounding a lot like his erstwhile boss.
As for the food, he says, "There is something endearing about good home cooking. I’m tired, and I’m sure a lot of people are tired, of overwrought fancy food with too many ingredients." So at the restaurant, as well as in "Back to the Family," he offers grits with shrimp, buttermilk fried chicken, and fried green tomatoes, although at the restaurant these last are served with dabs of olive tapenade and tomato pesto. Both the restaurant and the book also feature modern dishes with international flavors, such as pistachio-crusted chicken with coconut-chili-ginger sauce.
In truth, the restaurant’s kitchen is under the direction of friend and colleague Rey Villalobos. Smith says: "Four years ago I built a nice kitchen in my home in Hyde Park," the Chicago neighborhood where Smith lives with his life partner, Venezuelan-born artist Jesus Salgueiro. "I met this wonderful young man, Rey, who began working with me on parties at the house. I give a lot of parties for charity and over the years we became known for mounting beautiful home parties. So when an offer to do a restaurant came along, we thought, we’ll just move the party to the restaurant."
Diners at Table Fifty-Two are greeted with goat cheese biscuits because, Smith says, "every good home cook greets guests with something special. They’re baked in an iron skillet in our wood-burning oven. We bring them hot, still in the skillet, to the table. Also, we have our deviled eggs. Don’t you think deviled eggs are the epitome of a fine little welcome to greet a diner?" he asks rhetorically, his Southern hospitality roots showing.
In "Back to the Family," his recipe for Church Lady Devilled Eggs is included in the chapter of what Smith labels "relishes." "In the South, calling little bits of food served before dinner anything except `relishes’ is considered puttin’ on airs," he writes. But why "church lady?" "Growing up at the First Baptist Church of Jasper, Florida, I loved these wonderful eggs," he writes. They are classically Southern in their inclusion of pickle relish and yellow mustard. (At the restaurant, they are sometimes topped with caviar or gravlax.)
Smith was born and raised in Jasper, where his family still lives. It is as far from the Florida conjured up by Miami nightlife, palm trees, and beaches as one can get and still be in the Sunshine State. He describes it as "a remote place heavy with towering pine trees tucked away in a lush and wooded pocket of northern Florida."
Smith, 47, grew up on the farm his family still owns. "My family has tilled the earth for 100 years on our homestead," he says with pride. "We grew corn and tobacco and raised every kind of livestock. I grew up on fresh food. I remember my grandfather pulling up a new potato out of the ground and cutting it with his pocketknife and handing me a piece. The taste of that, and of corn right out of the field…" he says, his voice trailing off.
In "Back to the Family" Smith pays special tribute to the women in his life, from his great-grandmothers to his mother, Addie Mae. "I was a momma’s boy," he writes in the book. "Jasper was a great place to grow up but being a kid who was different from the rest made it tough. Little boys in Jasper drove tractors and worked on farms. I wanted to play piano, perform on stage, and stay inside and cook. Somehow I learned to live not by what others dictated but by what I felt in my heart was right for me." In the book he makes it clear that for him, "family" has come to mean not just blood relations, but kindred spirits, "people who think like we do, feel like we do, and love like we do."
He turned to cooking in part because of his love of performance. "Back then I was serious about the piano but I realized I was never really fabulous," he says. "But there’s something about performing for people – like when people enjoy a meal you’ve prepared, like when you surprise someone with their favorite dish – so I started cooking." He studied at the Florida State University School of Business where, he admits, "I was an OK student but I would think of ways to get away from school and intern."
Smith interned at the exclusive Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and through a connection landed a job at the Florida governor’s mansion during the administration of Bob Graham, now a U.S. senator. "They wanted me to wait tables but I wanted to work in the kitchen. By this time, 1980, I had memorized everything in Martha Stewart’s book." And it was by replicating her food, he believes, that he eventually got to be chef. He left that job almost four years later to cook on private yachts around the world.
"I came back to the States and worked at several restaurants but my wandering bug was not gone. Then I heard about this reproduction train being built by a friend of the governor’s, and that job on that train took me to Chicago. This was in the late `80s, and the economy wasn’t great so I supplemented by teaching at Williams Sonoma. I love teaching. Then Martha Stewart Living magazine needed a chef for special events, and at Williams Sonoma I had been reproducing everything from the magazine anyway" he says. "Then one time I was doing a party (for Martha Stewart Living) and a guy comes up and next thing I know I get a call to come cook at Harpo Productions. I cooked there for months and months without meeting Miss Winfrey. Finally we met and she told me she would like me to be her personal chef.
`After seven or eight years with her, I began to think, I have been given this great job but I feel like the job should enable me to do some good things. Then 9/11 happened, and I was invited to cook for the families and rescue workers. What else could I do to help? I wanted to write something to bring people back together again." Eventually, that something would evolve into "Back to the Family." Although Smith’s publisher rejected the book at the time, she planted the seed that helped him establish Common Threads, his non-profit organization that offers after-school classes in cooking and movement to children from 8 to 12 who are in the free or assisted lunch program, with the aim of instilling in them an appreciation for cultural diversity. The program serves children in Chicago and Kosciusko, Mississippi, and is expanding this year to Los Angeles.
"During the time I was getting Common Threads off the ground I met a man – I didn’t know at the time who he was – who invited me to California. This was just after I had done Oprah’s 50th birthday party. He told me he was a single father trying unsuccessfully to get his little girl to eat vegetables. I didn’t know who the man was, but I got his little girl to eat broccoli," he says. The man turned out to be Charles Annenberg Weingarten of the Annenberg Foundation, and he subsequently handed Smith a check for $250,000 for Common Threads.
Smith took the same concept to South Africa, where for six weeks he and his mother, who is 72, taught cooking to 150 girls at the school Oprah established there. "Since then the Australian government has called me, saying they had heard what we did in South Africa, and would we come and teach cooking to Aboriginal kids in the outback," he says, admitting apprehension along with excitement. "There’s no electricity, no running water in the outback! I want to show them so many things, like we do with the kids at Common Threads."
As part of his tour for "Back to the Family," Smith will conduct cooking demonstrations and book signings at four Wegmans markets in the Northeast, including the Princeton Wegmans on Saturday, August 25. "The folks at Wegmans have been supportive since day one," he says. "Plus, they always say, `Art, let’s feed you first off.’"
Cooking Event, Saturday, August 25, 6 p.m., Wegmans, 240 Nassau Park, West Windsor. Cooking demonstration and book signing by Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef and author of "Back to the Family: Food Tastes Better Shared with Ones You Love." Register. Tickets are free, but space is limited and tickets must be picked up in advance at the store’s service desk. Books for the signing must be obtained at Wegmans and are available for purchase at a discount. If the cooking demonstration fills up, the book signing will be opened to the public at approximately 7 p.m. 609-919-9300.