August 20, 2020
In today’s politically polarized climate, Art Smith knows the secret for uniting people from both sides of the aisle: food.
“Fried chicken takes no sides,” says Smith, a seventh-generation Floridian who worked in the governor’s mansion cooking for both Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Jeb Bush. The two-time James Beard Award winner has also prepared meals for Barack and Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Prince Harry and countless other household names. Smith is perhaps best known for being Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef for 10 years; he often appeared on her TV show.
One thing all these people had in common? An appreciation for Southern cuisine.
“A properly made biscuit is loved by all,” says Smith, 60, who’s the face behind Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ Florida Kitchen at Disney Springs and the menu of Tampa’s upscale Splitsville bowling alley.
The Jasper resident says not even the royal family could resist digging into Smith’s fried chicken with their bare hands. “Even those people that say they don’t want it because of health reasons, want it.”
Southern food is universally beloved, Smith says, because its ingredients are familiar and comforting.
“People who come from complicated lives choose to have food that’s not complicated,” Smith says
Take Bob Graham, the Democratic governor of Florida from 1979 to 1987. “His favorite meal was a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. We used to take that to him at the capitol,” Smith recalls.
When serving politicians, Smith usually kept his views to himself.
“I’ve witnessed all kinds of conversations… and personally, I did not agree. But I continue to be professional and do my work,” he says. With few exceptions, he says, “I’m there to serve, not to give an opinion.”
What will Smith serve at home at home on election night, as he watches the results on TV with the rest of the country? He’s leaning toward a turkey chili recipe “that I have served to a lot of politicians” or his mother’s chicken and dumplings.
“The other stuff, you just wind up eating too much of it, and you feel fat after you eat it,” Smith says. “I’d rather eat protein and feel good about myself.”
These days, Smith has a lot to feel good about. He recently lost 70 pounds, with the help of his friend Lucas Cancelier. In early spring, the Argentinian pro rugby player and trainer came to visit Smith, Smith’s husband, Jesus Salgueiro, and their four children in Jasper.
“COVID happened, and he got stuck here,” Smith says. The two worked out together every day, and Smith began shedding weight from his 330-pound frame.
Still, junk food has its place.
“Just remember that cake is magic,” Smith says, “and a little cake can set you free.”
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Host: Dalia Colón
Producer: Dalia Colón & Robin Sussingham
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