Q&A with Art Smith
Chicago chef dishes on everything from his 50th birthday to his new cookbook to being in the hall of fame
Art Smith (center) attends a Cooking Skills & World Cuisine class at the Chicago International Charter School in Bucktown on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / February 12, 2010)
He turns 50 on March 1 — the same day he celebrates Common Threads' fifth annual World Festival fundraiser at Soldier Field, which boasts (for $250 a ticket) dishes prepared by Rick Bayless, David Burke, Tyler Florence, Gale Gand, Stephanie Izard, Graham Elliot Bowles, Ming Tsai and Hubert Keller. Common Threads — the nonprofit Smith co-founded in 2003 to promote nutrition and well-being in children — also unveiled its first cookbook, "Eat the World: Good-for-You Food for Families."
In April, Smith, who owns Table Fifty-Two and Art and Soul (in Washington, D.C.) and famously did a 10-year stint as personal chef to Oprah Winfrey, will have a TV series, "Craving Comfort," on TLC. (The premise, he said, is he travels the country "in search of the most delicious, comfy food" in America.)
But wait, there's more: The Chicago Culinary Museum and Chefs Hall of Fame recently announced that Smith will be its 2010 inductee, joining Bayless, Carrie Nahabedian, Jimmy Bannos and Charlie Trotter. We caught up with Smith the other day. (What follows is an edited version of the conversation.)
Q: Congratulations on the hall of fame news. When did you find out?
A: I found out about a month ago, and I was just like, "Wow." I couldn't believe it and thought it was really great because the other people in the hall of fame are these amazing chefs, and this is quite an honor for someone who doesn't have the classic training they do. I have worked for incredible people, but my food has been comfort food, and that's my focus. And that's what I do. But it's important that comfort food is recognized too. That's the food we all relate with; that's what our mother's made for us.
Q: Most days I would rather have comfort food.
A: I think all of us would. It speaks to our soul. Anything that connects you to how you were raised does. Mac and cheese is maybe our biggest seller (at Table Fifty-Two), but the thing is, we have this big, fancy oven that cooks it at a high temperature, and doing that at home is not practical. But it's close to that experience. I think this honor also honors all the women in my life who raised me and taught me how to cook these things. I think, "Wow, we are serving my great-grandmother's cobbler chocolate cake," and to think that's a recipe that came from the countryside of northern Florida, it's remarkable.
Q: Have you ever been to a hall of fame, any hall of fame?
A: The Country Music Hall of Fame.
Q: Are you going to donate anything to this hall of fame when it opens?
A: I'm sure, when the time comes.
I have probably one of the largest cookbook collections in Chicago, and that will go to one of the schools.
I'll probably donate things from my travels and my other stints. I met the people working on the gay and lesbian museum in Washington, D.C., (proposed by a former Smithsonian collection specialist), and you know what they said to me? They said, "If the Smithsonian has Julia Child's kitchen, then we want yours!" They said I can be their Julia! I was a little overwhelmed. They said I was the most well-known openly gay chef in America. It was sweet. I'd never thought of myself that way.
But I just had dinner with (writer) Armistead Maupin. He wanted to meet me. He said, "It's amazing what you, an openly gay man from the South, has done." I never think of that. Coming from him, and having this amazing vegan dinner with him, America's foremost gay writer, it was remarkable.
Q: By the way, happy 50th.
A: Oh, it means a lot. Not only am I turning 50, I am at least 50 pounds lighter. I just lost 85 pounds. It was my goal to lose 50 for my 50th. I thought it would help me to be a better mentor to the kids, and it would just be better personally if I want to have the ability to keep doing what I do. I had to take better care of myself. Chefs are notorious for not taking care of themselves. We lead complicated lives; we eat too much and drink too much. We love to serve others, but often wait until it's too late to do it ourselves. And now I feel better.
If you're going
Common Threads' World Festival will be held 6 to 9 p.m. Monday at Soldier Field, 1410 S. Museum Campus Drive.
Tickets are $250 ($500 for VIP); to purchase, visit commonthreads.org or call 312-329-2501 ext. 209.