Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Art Smith: Mastering Life As A Top Chef

Art Smiths' "Maryland Style" fried chicken. He says the secret is in the brine and the size of the chicken. The pork sausage gravy counts, too.

Art Smith: Mastering Life As A Top Chef
by Carol Joynt

If passion is a key ingredient in the recipe of culinary success, some smart producer should give Art Smith his own television show. Call it “Cooking With The Stars.” Art is a celebrity chef who unabashedly, and without apology, loves to cook for other celebrities. That might seem like arrogance were it not for the fact that Smith has the cred of having cooked for a roster of celebs, including several notable years as personal chef for the mother of all celebrities, Oprah Winfrey.

Any notion that Art could be too much of a star “lover” is disarmed by his gratitude—for the people he knows, for the places he’s been and for his good fortune, which he shares in his “comfort” cooking, his restaurants and his dedication to bringing healthy food to low-income children. With a million dollars in seed money from Charles Annenberg Weingarten he co-founded the non-profit organization Common Threads “to educate children on the importance of nutrition and physical well-being.”

Art Smith on the success of his recent marriage to Jesus Salguerio: "We're nicer to each other."

A Bravo TV photo of Art Smith in 2009.
Smith lives by what he preaches. Over a long and relaxing lunch with the so-called “comfort king” at his Washington restaurant, Art & Soul, he said that when he was diagnosed with adult diabetes he applied his sermon of healthful eating to his own life, and this year through diet and exercise he got his 6-foot-three inch frame down from 325 to 228 pounds. His diabetes, he said, is gone. “I saw the light and got a handle on it.”

The phenomenon of culinary stardom is an advent of the last fifteen to twenty years, bringing with it hit television programs, lucrative appearance opportunities and, most of all, the trend of chef’s franchising themselves hither and yon. Art has not gone overboard. In addition to Art and Soul, he has Table Fifty-Two in Chicago, but when we discussed subjects like his love of Washington, the dearth of good restaurants in Georgetown and his affection for Neapolitan-style pizza, he repeatedly said, “You never know.”

While we talked we also sampled a range of items from the Art and Soul menu, including an Heirloom Squash Soup that instantly took the chill out of a very cold day; delicately fried oysters, his eye-catching and satisfying “Put Up’s” salad, Pork Ribs, Beef Shortribs and Herb Marinated Salmon. What I was particularly keen for, though, was his “Maryland Style” fried chicken. It did not disappoint, especially when eased onto the fork with equal portions of pork sausage gravy and buttermilk mashed potatoes.

I asked for the secret to fried chicken as good as his. “You have to brine the chicken,” Art said. “Salt it. That’s a big part. The dredge, too. I’m a big believer in southern flour. Also, simple spices. You have to use really good oil. I use grapeseed oil because it has a great flash point. You can’t use really large chickens, either.” The last rule had to with the pan: “Cast iron.”

Art credits the success of his fried chicken to Oprah and the extravagant 50th birthday party she tossed for herself several years ago. While she could have demanded and afforded a menu featuring heaps of the world’s rarest golden caviar and finest foie gras, “she requested fried chicken.” A star was born on the plate. No expense was spared for the event. “She has tremendous resources,” he said. “We built the kitchen out on the lawn at her home” in Montecito, CA. “Every possible star in the solar system was there.” Nonetheless, he said, “What I most love is that she is so incredibly down to earth.”

While Art had private success as Oprah’s chef, and before that as chef to former Florida governor Bob Graham, he shot to public stardom in the first season of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” in which 24 famous chefs competed and Rick Bayless won. That was 2009. Art did well. He made it to the final “Champions Round,” but when he was eliminated he broke down in tears, which—for better or worse—probably got him as much attention as his cooking. “I was just myself,” he said, praising the experience as a positive. “Having programs like Top Chef have made restaurants less of a gamble. You win by being on it.”
Art and Soul, in the building on the left, is literally just down the street from the Capitol, on the right.
Art Smith calls his brand of comfort food "food for the soul."
The main dining room at lunch.
One view of the bar.
Another view of the bar. Tables line the big windows.
The private dining room.
He arrived in Washington to good reviews and fanfare, especially since it merged with his Top Chef stardom and the surge of that other Chicagoan—Barack Obama. Now Art splits his time between Washington and Chicago, but confessed he doesn’t know how much longer Chicago will be one of his bases. Los Angeles is bright on his radar, too.

“I love Washington,” he said. “When you have an influence here what you do influences the country. Look at Michelle Rhee with the schools and what Todd Gray did with the White House.” Rhee was the innovative chancellor of Washington’s public schools. Gray, owner and chef at DC’s Equinox restaurant, was selected to help guide and promote First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy Kids Initiative. “I believe with this whole chef phenomenon, especially the celebrity phenomenon, you have to do more than pretty food. You have to be involved in the community.”
Staples of a southern meal: an Arnold Palmer (iced tea and fresh lemonade) and biscuits.
A start of Squash Soup with a crunchy spiced crouton and maple cream.
Tender, sweet and juicy BBQ pork ribs with Vinegar Slaw.
Healthy living: this salad is called "Put Up's" and includes a satisfying mix of veggies, pickles, lettuces, pecans and a deviled egg. The dressing is buttermilk.
Art Smith's macaroni casserole is well-reviewed for a good reason: cheese, cheese and more cheese.
It wouldn't be a down home meal without some spicy greens.
A native of Florida, Art Smith claims southern flour is essential for great fried chicken. Fried oysters with "chow chow" remoulade and shredded Romaine.
Braised beef shortribs with vegetables and farmer's cheese.
Herb marinated salmon served simply on a bed of buttermilk mash with pork braised kale.
The evening of our lunch, Art was scheduled to connect with the “Sesame Street” crew and the character “Elmo,” in particular, as part of Common Threads. For their joint appearance, Art designed Elmo a pint-sized version of his signature blue chef’s jacket that bears the organization’s heart-shaped logo. “I was meant to be a giver rather than a taker,” he said of his charity work, which is bi-partisan. “Fried chicken takes no sides.” (Ha! Tell that to the collard greens and the mac n’ cheese.)

Life became the topic as we settled into dessert--including heavenly Pineapple Upside Down Cake and assorted doughnuts. Art is at a juncture as he works to master not just the restaurant business, celebrity, charity and location, but also the impact of weight loss and renewed health; essentially, his own soul. “You reach a pinnacle in your life, not young anymore, not old, and you ask ‘what is my mission, what is my legacy?’
Art Smith with the mini signature chef's jacket he had made for "Elmo" of Sesame Street.
“One of the challenges of weight loss is that everyone loves a fat person. A fat person is funnier. I was afraid I’d lose the fat and lose the funny.” The weight loss, he said, has made “a huge difference, but people still do like my folksy, Lucille Ball ways.”

Which brought us back to the idea of Art having his own television program. He’s waiting for the right offer to come along, which ideally would include celebrities, lots of celebrities. “I am a like a serial chef who has to cook for every famous person in the world.” So far, he said, he’s scored “thirty percent” of the fame universe. “The reason why I so love cooking for famous people is that I like to see how they interact with food. It tells you who they really are.”

Therefore, when it happens, may the first episode please feature Lady Gaga (btw, one of his fans) and her meat dress.
Art and Soul's box of fresh doughnuts. Providence calling: coffee milk.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake.
An assortment of "baby" cakes to finish off the meal.
Art and Soul
415 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC
Table Fifty-Two
52 W. Elm Street
Chicago, IL

Global culinary powerhouse (aka “hot chef”) Daniel Boulud blew through Washington this week on behalf of a global nonprofit youth development program. Making an almost 24-hour pit stop between Palm Beach and New York, Boulud lured some of the capital’s own star chefs to the French Ambassador’s residence to raise money for the group Global Kids.

Patrons could sample appetizers (Foie Gras Terrine, Poached Mussels, Coq au Vin) from an array of buffets set up in the mansion’s public rooms. Waiters passed silver trays with champagne and wine. The charitable chefs included José Andrés, Cathal Armstrong, Bertrand Bellengier, Todd Gray, Michel Richard, and Eric Ziebold.
Acting French Ambassador François Rivasseau, Daniel Boulud, and Elisabeth De Kergorlay (photos: JAMES BRANTLEY).
In addition to procuring the power of Boulud, organizer Elisabeth De Kergolay also pulled together lavish auction items donated by friends, including one-time Washingtonian Diandra Douglas, who put up her 14-bedroom and 18-bathroom “house” on Mallorca. The successful bidder was Cindy Jones.

Not all eyes were on the auction items or food. When Boulud walked through the Embassy one woman said, “Oh my God, I don’t know about his cooking but he sure is hot.” The sizzle could be seen steaming off his white jacket.
Boulud with a young foodie, Gabriel, at the French Embassy.
Comments? Contact Carol here
Follow NYSD Dining on Twitter.