Art of Living

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

MW: By that point, your career had gone from being Oprah’s chef to having your own restaurants, starting with Table Fifty-Two in Chicago.

SMITH: I told Oprah that I wanted to do restaurants, and she said, ”Honey, that’s great. I don’t think you need to work for me full time.”

”Aw, Miss Oprah, I love you.”

”You can do my parties and stuff like that.”

And that’s the arrangement that we have. I still do her parties. She’s been truly my biggest fan and the best boss I ever had.

But getting back to the LGBT, what made me even more public about being gay and proud was Top Chef. Being on Top Chef Masters, I was myself. I’d never really been that openly gay on TV. People responded favorably. That’s where I became so comfortable.

MW: I’d say the gayest thing you’ve done on TV was Lady Gaga’s ABC special, A Very Gaga Thanksgiving. That’s pretty gay.

SMITH: Yeah, that’s very gay. Isn’t that funny? It all came from just meeting her backstage on Oprah’s show. I love her.

MW: I’m compelled to ask whether or not you had a hand in her infamous meat dress, so to speak.

SMITH: No! I wish! Can you imagine? Talk about the world’s most famous dress. Apparently it’s preserved forever in Cleveland. But, no, I had nothing to do with it. If it had been a fried-chicken dress, yes. [Laughs.]

MW: And now you’re working with her parents. What’s your role with Joanne Trattoria in New York?

SMITH: I’m the executive chef. I advise them on the restaurant. They’re amazing. I believe in Mr. Germanotta’s dream. He wanted a little restaurant, and I said, ”Let me help you.”

None of this was ever planned. It just kind of happened. I don’t even have a résumé. I’m a big believer in when things are meant to happen, they’ll just happen. Not that there aren’t times when I kind of look and think, ”Let’s make something happen.”

One thing I learned from those early days working for the governor is the importance of diplomacy and how food is an important part of that. That goes all the way back to growing up, when food just made things feel better. If you want people to come, feed ‘em. If you want people to stay, feed ‘em a lot. Working for Oprah and these different people, I became aware of things and became an advocate. I realized I could use food as a way to help. I also realized through all this running around here and there, cooking for this billionaire and this celebrity, somehow there was a meaning to it all. I was meant to cook for all these people, to be part of this, because somehow or another I was going to use it to do good. And that’s what I’ve done.

MW: Speaking of all that running around and food’s role in your life, you made a pretty dramatic change, losing weight after your diabetes diagnosis.

SMITH: I was very fortunate, being in the Oprah camp, that I’d met every big-deal doctor there is. I’d met Dr. Dean Ornish. Dr. Ornish said to me that I could change my whole life if I lost weight. I didn’t listen so much, and it got worse. Then I thought I was having a heart attack, and other kinds of issues. I just said enough’s enough. I started looking for someone to help me. What happened is I met this amazing man, Az Ferguson, this beautiful Aussie man with a big ol’ heart. He took me on and I was able to lose all the weight. I did it myself, but trust me, when you have someone there watching over you, helping you, giving you encouragement, that helps too.

The funny thing about it is I never think of myself as being that strong. Nor do I ever think of myself as being famous, either, because I work around these amazing, famous people. I’m like, yeesh! They’re crazy famous. I just happen to be a cook who cooks for them, who people know. That’s it.

Anyway, the thing about it is I just reached a place where to be effective, to be able to do more, I had to take better care of myself. Now that I’ve got five restaurants, it’s a constant juggle to stay on track.

MW: You’ve also got Common Threads.

SMITH: It was Jesus’s idea. ”Art, we need to do a program that involves teaching and cooking that would help kids.”

Then 9/11 happened. Jesus and I were sent to New York to cook for victims’ families. We were just completely blown away by that whole experience. I wrote, ”For our world is a quilt, its people the fabric, all joined together by common threads.”

Common Threads enables children not only to learn how to cook, but to learn how to work together, to work as a team. To know that food is a way to bring people together. While they’re doing that, they’re also learning about healthy food, what’s good for them. It’s evolved with the times, and it’s amazing. It went from 15 kids to now over 6,000 kids. I look at my business career, and we’ve done great things. But I do believe Common Threads far exceeds all of that.

Something very important, behind the chef is a great man who’s been a very important part – downright business manager, director. This very unassuming, beautiful Venezuelan man is the secret of my success. At an event where I was being honored, I was onstage. Someone told me a really sweet thing, that Jesus said, ”You see that? I made him.” [Laughs.] I thought that was really sweet. I said, ”Baby, you framed Art.”

”Yes, I framed you.”

I was kind of all over the place, and he framed me. It’s been a great, great journey. And a fun one, too.

For more about Chef Art Smith, visit chefartsmith.net.

The 22nd Annual Chef’s Best Dinner & Auction is Tuesday, June 26, at the Washington Hilton Hotel, 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW, 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $250. For more information, call 202-269-2277 or visit foodandfriends.org.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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