MW: By the time you got to college, you were already heading for a culinary career, right?
SMITH: At [Florida State University], I got into hotel school – the Florida State party school. This was the ’80s and people were partying their butts off. In those days, it was wine coolers and cheese trays.
I was hanging out in the library with this young guy I had a bit of a crush on. He goes, ”You know, there’s this place you would like. It’s called The Greenbrier.” I looked it up, saw it was really beautiful, thought, ”Wow, this is cool.” I loved nice things. I loved pretty. Lo and behold, a man associated with it showed up one day at school and just chatted with about 65, 70 people. I never thought of myself as a good actor, but I guess I am, because he chatted with me and I gave him this, ”I’m just this poor boy from the sticks who’s always wanted an opportunity to see how it’s really done,” and blah, blah, blah. I got the job. I beat out all these other kids who had all this experience, when I had none. It was there, being around real chefs – really tough chefs – where they had this internship with kids from all over the world. It was incredible. The facility was over the top. Of course, they were eons ahead of me, all had some kind of culinary background. All I had done was some parties in school, and in high school worked at the Kentucky Fried Chicken. That’s all I ever did, okay?
One thing I did have, I was always artistic. They’d stick me in the garde manger (plating station) and I was great. Then they would be mean to me and throw me in the veg station and I’d have to peel potatoes or whatever. What really kind of turned the tables was when they started really screaming at me, being really mean, these chefs. I would run and hide. I have a dear chef friend, Mark Gray, who was the chocolatier at The Greenbrier. I used to hide in the chocolate shop. I realize now why I’m such a chocolate fiend. They’d yell at me and I’d hide in the chocolate shop and eat chocolate.
MW: Chocolate is your security blanket?
SMITH: Exactly. Mark was like, ”If you’re going to be down here, you’re going to learn.” That’s where I really fell in love with baking. It was amazing. It was like magic. ”Now that we’ve shown you this, you go back there and be tough. Toughen it up.” In those days, the training was like a hazing. A chef – who wasn’t a great chef – would scream at you. Things were a lot different.
MW: So you don’t run a Gordon Ramsay sort of kitchen?
SMITH: No. I don’t do well with screamers. Not to say it’s never happened before. It’s always been kind of acceptable to curse and scream on the line. But a kitchen doesn’t have to be loud to be effective.
When I work with my chefs now, the different heads of my restaurants, I teach them how to engage with customers. Customers today like to see the chef, like to hear what you might have to say. Before, many chefs were separated [from customers] by a wall. But that engagement is so important.
MW: You said you’d been picked on for a long time, that you appeared gay, but when did you come out?
SMITH: I was never in the closet, but maybe I came out when I was 24 or 25, when I was working for the governor of Florida, Gov. Bob Graham (D). Mrs. Graham (Adele Khoury Graham) looked at me, looked at the governor, and said, ”Art, I think you’d be happier working in San Francisco.” [Laughs.]
MW: She said that in a snide way? A loving way?
SMITH: A loving way. We were in little Tallahassee and in those days San Francisco was the gay mecca. It took someone of her stature to basically say to me, ”You know, it’s okay, Art.” We’re best buds, really good friends. I thought it was very sweet of her.
Then I worked in private business, and I was kind of private. I started working for Martha Stewart. Martha, in those days, was doing this annual AIDS bike ride. I participated, would help them do that party. That was being open. What I admire about Martha – we’re talking really early ’90s – Martha was one of those big people in our country who was very supportive of our community and employed a lot of gay people.
Then I met Oprah Winfrey. Well, you know, Oprah don’t leave no stone unturned. Like, ”To thine own self be true!” She and I, we just kind of laid everything out. She loves my Southern-ness and my Southern cooking. She also has this ability – like no other – to sense a person. She knew that I had worked really hard, that there had been pain, that I’d been bullied. ”Baby, just be happy. You found a passion. You found that purpose that took you away from those tobacco fields!” [Laughs.] She just embraced me. I was extremely open with her. She met my boyfriend of that time, and also went through it with me when we broke up. I remember her sitting me down, saying, ”Honey, we’ve all been through it.” What boss is going to sit down with you and talk about breakups? She did.