Chef Art Smith could be considered one of the hardest-working men in the restaurant business. From running his Common Threads nonprofit — the goal is to teach 1 million kids to cook — and competing on Top Chef Masters to running five restaurants nationwide, Smith keeps a frenetic pace that shows no signs of scaling back. I sat down with the busy cuisinier to chat about his upcoming book Healthy Comfort, his D.C. restaurant Art and Soul’s recent renovation, and last but certainly not least, his 100-pound weight loss.
I love the book’s name, Healthy Comfort. We all know a million ways to feel comforted when we’re doing something that’s actually unhealthy, but what about comfort that’s good for you?
The book comes out May 7 and it’s all about, how do you keep yourself in check on a daily basis but still have a sense of comfort in your life? I still love great food; I have a chapter called “Party Day” with my favorite recipes from my restaurants because eating great fried chicken and lasagna once in a while is enjoyable. But making a better life starts with a decision to be engaged in how I eat on a regular basis. I worked so closely with my trainer Az Ferguson. I almost feel disrespectful just calling him a trainer because he taught me to be healthier, focusing on doing better at everything, including being a better restaurateur. [Smith has also opened Southern Art & Bourbon Bar in Atlanta and LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto, Calif.] Hopefully the book will inspire others to make their own healthy decisions to be better. I’m most proud that I’ve been completely off of my diabetes medication for four years, and my diabetes is undetectable.
There are lots of heartbreaking stories in the book about what it’s like to be a fat chef. I learned the hard way — people love you when you’re fat but they hate you when you’re skinny and I write about how I deal with that. In my restaurants, I’ve developed healthful menus like the Art Start at Art and Soul. We gathered my favorite breakfasts together so diners can start their day in a way that puts them on a healthful journey. I love seeing how people respond to that.
Art and Soul was your second restaurant, and now you have several. What niche does it occupy in your portfolio?
We created Art and Soul four years ago on the cusp of Obama becoming president, because I knew him well and we lived two blocks away from each other in Chicago. I knew that with Obama in the White House, comforting Southern food would be very popular. The restaurant blew up in popularity quickly; it’s probably the best location on the Hill for a restaurant. We’ve hosted a few presidents, rock stars, heads of state from different countries — Art and Soul is almost as famous as my mothership restaurant, Table Fifty-Two in Chicago. Because of its success, the restaurant has propelled that kind of Southern, soulful food to an even larger stage.
And now you’re renovating the space after only four years?
We renovated because we were successful. Originally back in 2008 the space was being designed for Charlie Palmer, who decided not to take it, so I inherited that modern restaurant décor; it was never made for me. Table Fifty-Two is in an 1871 carriage house where we spent time, energy and research redecorating the period interior, so when we opened Art and Soul, I had to convince myself it’s not about the furniture, its about the food.
Once I saw how successful Art and Soul was going to be, I wanted to turn it into what it’s really supposed to be, especially now in the second term of Obama’s presidency. I don’t like to do restaurants as clones like some celebrity chefs do, lacking any personality. I wanted Art and Soul to have its own integrity and reflect what the restaurant is about. We made it warm and organic, replacing the carpet with wood floors and added new white fixtures that are warmer and not like our old spaceship ones. I also banished the red tile — I hate to eat in red.
Has Art and Soul’s menu changed with the interior?
Fried chicken is still the star, honey. I’ve seen a huge trend in little pots of food, so we’ve started doing those, like bacon corn bread served in a tin can. Local foods from Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and West Virginia, from meats to shellfish to greens to cheese, have always been part of the equation. Chef Wes Morton came to us from Louisiana and brought in new flavors and lightened up dishes. He has really refined the restaurant with a French sensibility. I love that we offer little bites of desserts rather than just huge slabs of cake.
Art and Soul is known for being a bipartisan gathering place; that’s a tough line to walk these days.
I believe there are no angry people, just hungry people. The day we opened I told the wait staff, “We are about more than just serving fried chicken. You’re helping the people you serve do their job better. When that bill gets passed, you had a hand in it because you fed them.” I’ve cooked for powerful people and I’ve seen them turn right around and make important decisions. Food sustains us.
I look around Art and Soul and see a high-ranking democrat and republican dining at tables next to each other. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner have both held events here. Fried chicken takes no sides, honey. That’s why I was so cautious about the renovation; we were giving a facelift to something that is very successful, not opening a new restaurant.
There’s a way to advocate for causes we’re passionate about without being politician-centric. My inaugural chef’s ball held at Art and Soul during this year’s swearing-in, was amazingly successful at bringing together people who cared about food, not just about politics.
In the renovation we took the politics out of the restaurant. When you’re at the table, do you really need to talk about politics? We replaced the portraits of world leaders that used to hang on the walls with pictures of my family farm. We took the politics out of the restaurant and maybe it will make people at the epicenter of politics just take a break. The table is a meeting place and my restaurants are my salons.
Photo Courtesy of Harper One