Great camouflage chef jacket.
Thank you very much, ladies. I’m always kind of changing myself a little bit, there is a lot of it here but I thought it would be kind of fun. And of course I have my rainbow socks, hello! Those are called pride socks.
You’ve been a personal chef to Oprah Winfrey, opened restaurants, authored several cookbooks and received the highest awards in the culinary profession but what would you say was the biggest turning point in your career?
By the grace of God I loved food and I loved cooking and by a leap of faith I was asked to go help the governor of Florida because I wasn’t a great student at Florida State University. The governor’s family liked me and they said, “We have a special guest.” And I said, “Who is the guest?” They said, “Mikhail Baryshnikov [from ‘White Nights’].” From the time I was born I’ve loved celebrities. The next thing I know they hire me. So that really changed my world and then of course when I met Oprah that was like the universe. Not just the planet the whole universe!
At what moment did you really feel like you made it as a chef?
One of my greatest, greatest thrills was 10 years ago when [my partner] Jesus [Salgueiro] and I started an after-school cooking program for kids [in underserved communities] called Common Threads. It started in a little basement of a church down here in Hyde Park with just 15 kids and I’m happy to say that today we teach 47,000 kids. It’s free of charge and that many children from all over Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, all around come to it. [There was a moment when] I was at a store and a lady came up to me and said, “You’re that chef…” and I’m thinking she is going to say, “You’re that chef that works for Ms. Winfrey,” and she’s like, “You’re that chef that taught my kid how to cook!” That’s when I thought we’ve made it. That made me feel good.
Now that chefs are celebrities themselves, do you remember the first time you were recognized in public?
I don’t feel like a celebrity. However, I’ve done enough of those reality TV shows that I guess I can be, thanks to Ms. Winfrey. It happens when I’m in some of the most obscure places of the world. Someone will look at me and go, “You’re Art Smith!” People recognize me but what I do love is when people say, “I love you and thank you so much for all of your humor.” I think my humor has gone South and has gotten a little reality TV-ish but I think when people come to me and say that I’ve made them happy, then it makes me happy.
Who is someone that has recently changed your view on food?
I’m always thrilled to eat food from all over different parts of the world but I also love to eat food in people’s homes. I was just in the Dominican Republic and the family that was hosting us—he actually played for the Cubs, Moisés Alou—had made this wonderful crab. They did this creole and served it with tostados and little plantains that you beat down and fry, they were so wonderful. Every time I have a home–cooked meal I’m inspired because I believe that we go many places yet home always tastes good and feels good. We all miss home so whenever we are able to bring home close to people we’ve been successful.
After being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2008 and losing over 100 pounds, how do you keep the weight off?
I jog and I run. I ran three miles today on the lake. Okay, saying I ran three miles sounds so adventurous, I really jogged and walked. If you live down in Hyde Park you’ve seen me out there on that track. I started doing this almost five years ago and I haven’t had to have medication since then … In fact I ran right here, right here was where I completed at the finish line for the Chicago Marathon at 4:20! Yes, A 54-year-old man ran it at 4:20. Yes, I did that. And then I ran the Marine Corps Marathon and I beat Oprah’s record. But I had to train with a trainer for a year! He lived with me and he actually ran with me in these races. I love him to death but I’d rather live with four kids than a trainer who’s watching what I put in my mouth. Lord have mercy! Clearly it is what you eat and clearly it is how active you are and you have to drink a lot of water. You’ll think you’re drinking a whole river and whole ocean but you still haven’t drank enough water.
When you do allow yourself a cheat meal, what do you splurge on?
How does one become Lady Gaga’s favorite chef?
Well, I was at “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and there is this infamous hallway backstage. Every famous person in America has walked down that hallway, I call it the Golden Mile. I always say to people, “If you ever happen to be [in Harpo Studios] the best places to kind of like roust is in the cafe or in that hallway.” Oprah and every celebrity is always near that cafe. So I was over by the cafe and I heard her name. I’m like, “No. Lady Gaga?” and I said, “You know what, I think I lost 20 pounds from listening and dancing to ‘Bad Romance’.” They told me that she was going to be there the next day and I said, “I must cook for her!” So chef Ray [Villalobos] who is the executive chef of Table Fifty-Two and I cooked up this big breakfast overnight. We did a comfort oatmeal and all of these great healthy things and then we did fried chicken and waffles. She had had a rough night the night before in Indiana. We had already set up the room and I was sitting in the hallway and she comes flying out and goes, “Chef Art Smith from ‘Top Chef Masters’ made my breakfast?” I’m thinking, “Lady Gaga watched ‘Top Chef Masters’?!” She said, “I just love you!” and I’m like, “You know me?” We became friends and then I helped her dad with his restaurant. I’m doing a meal this Friday at the Lady Gaga concert. We’re going to do a backstage experience for their Born This Way Foundation, a great organization that helps stop bullying and prevents it. She is a very sweet, sweet lady.
What is something that people would be surprised to know about Lady Gaga?
She can cook. She is gorgeous behind all of that [makeup and the costumes]. She comes from a family that loves and adores her. Her father and mother, Cynthia and Joe, are very much part of her world. Most celebrities have agents and managers and all kinds of stuff but she has a mom and dad that keep an eye on everything. Her sister just graduated from Tisch [School of the Arts], which is cool, she is in fashion but they are a very caring and very engaged family. I think her success has been due to the fact that her family has been at her side for her whole career.
How serious are the battles between chefs on competitive cooking shows?
I’m always a bridesmaid but never a bride. I have competed in every competition show around [and never won]. [Laughs] To me, it’s not about winning it’s about being remembered. A funny story is when a wonderful chef, John Besh, went against Mario Batali when I was a judge on “Iron Chef”. John just beat the pants off of Mario. Mario Batali just looked at me like, “I can’t believe you’re going to make him beat me.” And I’m like, “He should beat you because he cooked better than you!” It took a year before Mario would even look at me! It was funny. Another funny story is when I competed with Cat Cora. She is a trip, she is from Mississippi and she is Southern and she and I had a little cat fight and battle while comparing our biscuits and I can make a biscuit. She beat me, she did okay but mine tasted good.
At your level of success do you still get nervous preparing meals for influential individuals such as the President of the United States?
I love Barbra Streisand and she has never gotten over her stage fright. And I have never, ever gotten over my stage fright. One of the funniest times of my life was when Ms. Winfrey said, “Art, Mr. Mandela is going to come and see us and I want you to cook for him.” I said, “Nelson Mandela?” She said, “I don’t know any other ones!” I cooked this big meal and he had to appear on the show and at the time Jesus and I were very fresh as a couple. Jesus was like, “This must go, we must get rid of this couch!” So we completely made the room over. I mean, we were just raging boys running around with flowers and everything. After the producers said, “Ms. Winfrey would like to see you.” I’m like, “Oh no, what did I do?” I went over there and Mr. Mandela was standing next to her. She said, “I’d like for you to meet Mr. Mandela.” All I remember was that I said hello, I don’t remember exactly what I said and I kind of moved around. Oprah and I always had what she would say are “coming to Jesus” conversations at breakfast because at breakfast time it was quiet and the whole world wasn’t calling her. We would sit and chat and I said to her, “Ms. Winfrey, Mr. Mandela is just downright biblical. He is just bigger than life,” and she’s like, “Honey, I didn’t know whether you were going to curtsy or bow down to him.” So yes, I still get nervous! I think that’s part of one’s success. If you don’t get nervous in what you do then you shouldn’t be doing it. Because life is not easy, you always must keep it up and keep it together.
How did you know Jesus was the one for you?
It was just one of those things. I remember feeling sad and Oprah looked at me like, “I feel your pain! But please, let’s eat.” [Laughs] We went down to Miami—I love Miami, Miami is so magical—and we had an issue with the florist. The florist kept making marks on the table so I tossed the florist out and said, “You know what? Ms. Winfrey, I’ll go buy flowers and do them myself.” She said, “You’re going to go do the flowers?” I said, “Yes, I can do flower arrangements.” I love shopping so I went and bought out the whole cooler of flowers. Oprah was like, “Don’t you think we have too many flowers?” I said, “No darling, you’re the queen. You need lots of flowers.” I went to go pay for the flowers [at the flower shop] and you know that great song that Cher sings, “It’s in his eyes”? Honey, these turquoise blue eyes looked at me and I’m like, “Okay, hello!” I was done. And that was 14 years ago, I brought home flowers and Jesus.
Who is still on your bucket list to cook for?
You know who I love? I am so impressed with Pope Francis. I’m not Catholic but I do think he’s a really amazing man. He is really doing great things. He’s taken this ancient, ancient church and brought it down to the people and I really do believe he is reaching people. He is reaching non-Catholics like myself. I don’t know how he’d feel about having a celebrity chef cook for him. He’s so “of the people” that I would go and make soup for him or toast. We are all given a gift so we share our gift and I think he’s really pretty amazing.
Have you picked up on anything from being let into the lives of such high-profile people?
I’ve been able to cook for a lot of fascinating people and I have to say, the more complicated or busy a person’s life is the more simple they wish their food to be. You could be the President of the United States and just like wonderful grilled fish or you’re the talk show host of the world and you like a simple chopped salad or you’re the biggest pop star in the world and you like fried chicken and waffles. My point is, it’s never what it seems to be and they’re all just people and thank you for them because they’ve touched a lot of lives.
Go-to drink of choice?
I’m from the South so I love gin. A gin and tonic, I like the flavor. I drink maybe once every two weeks, believe that one. When I was in the Dominican I was all about rum and had one and that was enough.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
On a local level I do love our mayor [Rahm Emanuel]. I think he’s a great man. I think he has a big job and I think this is a great city that has a lot of things going on and as an adopted citizen of Chicago I’d like to have a drink with him and ask him what more can I do.
KIRSTEN MICCOLI / A DRINK WITH
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