Art of Living

From rural roots to dignitaries and divas, Chef Art Smith celebrates life's banquet

Chef Art Smith (right)

Chef Art Smith (right)

(Photo by Kipling Swehla)

MW: How did you come to work for her?

SMITH: We met through her hairdresser, Andre Walker. He’s an amazing man, far more than just the hairdresser. He’s also a very talented interior designer, a wine aficionado. One of those amazing renaissance guys. He and I met at a party, and he said, ”You should cook for my friend sometime.”

MW: You were already in Chicago? I figured Oprah brought you to Chicago.

SMITH: I had gone up to Chicago because one of the governor’s friends built a train called the American-European Express. It was a beautiful luxury train based out of Chicago that ran to Washington Union Station and up to New York. I got hired as the chef on the train, so that’s how I got there.

But I was in Washington doing a party for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, for the governor – by then Sen. Graham – and I got a call from Andre. ”Art, can you come make lunch?” ”When?” ”Tomorrow.” One thing I knew, working for very big-deal people, is that when you’re on their radar, you’d better stick to it. Fact is, you can be right off that radar. I don’t know how I got on the plane and got there. I cooked all night, then went and made lunch for her.

MW: Do you recall what you made?

SMITH: Yes, I do. I did this Florida lunch. In Tallahassee, they made this great thing, paella salad – with shrimp and chicken and chorizo, and this vinaigrette. It’s really good. Then I made these itsy-bitsy biscuits. Key lime greens, a key lime tart, some other stuff. I wanted to show her this Florida side of me. So that’s what I did – and she loved it.

That went on for months. Then I got a call: ”Ms. Winfrey would like to see you.” I’m like, ”Oops, what have I done?” I ran down there. She was in her office, sitting there. ”Yes, ma’am? Yes, Ms. Winfrey?” She kind of laughed when I said that. I think she knew I wasn’t trying to kiss up to her, but that it was just me being Southern. We chatted and she said she needed a chef. ”Do you know one?”

”I sure do. Me.”

I ran out of that office and called my mom. ”Oprah Winfrey just offered me a job!”

”Oh, that’s nice. How are you? Are you taking care of yourself?”

”Mother, it’s a big deal!” [Laughs.] I love my mom.

When Oprah asked me to be her chef, that’s when the whole world changed. That’s when I started traveling around the country with her, at her different houses. It was where I learned about being true to myself, being happy about being just a Southern kid, being proud of serving fried chicken.

MW: Aside from the professional, there’s also the personal. You went through that breakup when you were working for Oprah, but you also met the man you’d marry.

SMITH: She had a house in Miami. I would go down beforehand and set things up. I’d thrown the florist out of the house because he kept messing up the tables. True story. After working at the Florida governor’s mansion, I knew about antique tables. And the tables kept getting messed up. Rrrgh. God. So I just said I would do the flowers.

”Art, don’t you think we have too many flowers?”

”No, honey! You’re the queen. You deserve lots of flowers.” She’d laugh every time I’d say that. We still have a wonderful rapport.

What happened was I went to buy flowers. We were on Fisher Island and you take a ferry over to South Beach. In my 40s, I was zipping around in Ms. Winfrey’s Aston Martin, a convertible. Can you imagine? [Laughs.] I’d put my best clothes on to go shopping. ”Here she comes!” I would walk into the flower shop and say, ”I’ll just take everything.” [Laughs.] It was fun. So I was paying for flowers and I saw this man smiling at me. He had these pretty blue eyes. ”Ooh, he’s cute!”

MW: Jesus does have pretty blue eyes.

SMITH: I always say to people, ”Do not look into the eyes.” He smiled at me and I smiled back. But months passed, didn’t pursue it. Seemed like a year later, I was arranging flowers. I had a friend who would sit there and babysit me while I did it, because I’d moan and groan. ”I’m sitting here doing flowers and I can see South Beach and the party going on from here. And I ain’t got nobody. And woe is me.” And he said, ”I know someone who likes you. His name is Jesus.”

”Oh, Jesus loves me, this I know. Shut up.”

So we called him. I got those flowers done, dressed crazy fast and jumped on that ferry. He shows up in his giant SUV. He’s wearing this kind of soccer wear, that whole soccer look.

MW: That’s pretty much a fetish now.

SMITH: And he was looking kind of delicious in it. In those days, Daddy was really working the muscles, had some of that going on. We were chatting [later] and I said, ”Will you marry me?”

”You’re crazy! You just met me.”

”I know what I like and I don’t really want to waste time. I don’t have time to date. I think you’re hot and I like you.”

”You’re crazy. Let’s go eat.”

He was going, ”We have to take this slow.” I said, ”Let me come home with you.”

”Okay, but we’re not sleeping together.”

I went home with him and we’ve been together ever since. That was like 13 years ago. It’s funny how long we waited to get married. We could’ve gotten married in another state. But when Washington made it possible, we decided that would be the best place. The Lincoln [Memorial], that was Jesus’s idea. He wanted Lincoln and Marianne Williamson. I wanted a big fried-chicken party at the restaurant.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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