FEATURE: The dish on Art Smith" class="popup" style="padding:10px" data-toggle="new-window" data-new-window-width="500" data-new-window-height="300"> FEATURE: The dish on Art Smith%20https://www.suwanneedemocrat.com/news/local_news/font-color-cc-feature-font-the-dish-on-art-smith/article_e23b28db-4981-5691-be10-0a7275d6f57a.html" class="popup" style="padding:10px"data-toggle="new-window" data-new-window-width="500" data-new-window-height="300"> FEATURE: The dish on Art Smith" class="popup" style="padding:10px"data-toggle="new-window" data-new-window-width="500" data-new-window-height="300"> FEATURE: The dish on Art Smith" style="padding:10px"data-toggle="new-window" data-new-window-width="500" data-new-window-height="300"> FEATURE: The dish on Art Smith&body=https://www.suwanneedemocrat.com/news/local_news/font-color-cc-feature-font-the-dish-on-art-smith/article_e23b28db-4981-5691-be10-0a7275d6f57a.html" style="padding:10px">

For Jasper native Art Smith, who has cooked for everyone from President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela to Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts, life is not complete until it's pretty.

In the wake of his father's death from a sudden heart attack, Smith sat down in Jasper over a meal of fruit, nuts, and vanilla pudding to discuss life, health, love, and, of course, good food.

As he arranged fruit in a bowl he said, "That's always been my talent. I can make it pretty."

This talent, which has earned him celebrity status as a chef, restaurant owner, best-selling author, and, most recently, television show host with the upcoming TLC series "Comfort Food". And Smith says it all began as a way to avoided picking tobacco on his family farm in Jasper.

"My father was a major believer in working really, really hard. My only saving grace was that he also had a great adoration for talent," said Smith. "It was hard work, honey. It was sweaty, hot, sticky, disgusting work. So that's really how it happened. It was a way to escape working on the farm," Smith chuckled. Smith's father, Jasper native Palmer Gene Smith, passed away Jan. 27.

As Smith, began cooking throughout the day for farm workers, his mother Addie Mae and grandmothers Georgia and Mabel, as well as his African American nanny, became crucial influences on his down-home, southern cooking style.

"In my family, the women are big cooks because, you know, if you work real hard, you get real hungry," said Smith. "So I was always around that."

And by 'that,' he means good ole southern cookin'.

However, it wasn't until years later as a student at Florida State University that Smith truly found his calling. For it was at this time, in 1981, that Smith discovered Martha.

"It wasn't even my book; it was my roommate's book," Smith said of Martha Stewart's first book, "Entertaining." "I had memorized that thing from beginning to end and I could reproduce Martha like that," Smith snapped his fingers across the air.

After college, he landed a job as chef for Florida Governor Bob Graham, which gave him the opportunity to cook for legendary names such as ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. He later worked as head chef of a Dutch yacht sailing Europe and aboard a luxury train, traveling across the country before Smith says fate, and a little luck, stepped in.

"Out of the blue, Martha Stewart Magazine was looking for a chef who could reproduce her work," Smith paused. "I got the job," he laughed.

"I have a lot of respect for Martha because she refuses to use a mop," Smith said. "She has these pet peeves. She hates aluminum foil because she thinks it's wasteful, she hates paper towels, and she hates mops. She would get on her hands and knees and scrub the floors in her East Hampton house."

Smith continued to work for Martha Stewart and to do special parties for socialites and for Gov. Graham. It was during one of these parties that Oprah called.

"I said to everyone at the party, I love ya, got to go," said Smith. He then flew to Chicago on a red-eye flight to make Oprah lunch, which continued for three months before ever meeting her.

"Finally I get a call from this woman and I think, 'Oh God, I've poisoned her'," Smith said. "I go to meet her and she's sitting there in her make-up chair. She says, nice to meet you, Art. I said, 'Well very nice to meet you Ms. Winfrey.' And then she said, 'Art, I need a chef. You know anybody?'"

"I said, 'Yes, I think I do," he said. "She just loved that I called her Ms. Winfrey."

Smith was Oprah's chef for the next 12 years. Smith, who had been employed by Kentucky Fried Chicken during high school, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight.

During this time Smith met his muse, renowned artist Jesus Salgueiro, in a flower shop in south Florida. Salgueiro has continued to provide encouragement and inspiration to Smith ever since.

"Jesus is a wonderful artist and painter. Together as a team, we can do some kick-ass stuff," said Smith

In 2007, Smith opened his most famous restaurant Table Fifty-Two in Washington, D.C. where Barack and Michelle Obama dropped in on Valentine's Day last year. "Barack loves the fish," he smiled.

While Smith no longer works for Oprah full-time, he still does many of her private parties and often contributes to her show and magazine.

But it was the tragedy of 9/11 that opened Smith's eyes to the next phase of his life, and sparked his mission to bring families together around a common goal -healthy eating.

"We came back from cooking at Ground Zero feeling real sad," said Smith. "And I wanting to write a book about bringing the world to the table called Common Threads. I began by writing, '...our world is a quilt, all joined together by common threads.' Afterward, it sat in the desk."

"Then Jesus says one day, 'Hey, we're buying a church,'" Smith chuckled. "So we buy this big, giant building." Smith said it was Jesus' vision to make the building a center to bring the community together. "He said to me, you have no idea what's in store, there's a big picture here. He predicted this. All I predicted was financial ruins."

"It was all kind of crazy," said Smith. "So we did it."

In 2003, he founded Common Threads, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching kids how to cook and about the joys of healthy eating. The charity stems from Smith's belief that food can teach families about each other as well as about the world and other cultures.

"Quality good food costs money and everyone can only do what they can afford, but the reality is, if it's real cheap, you probably shouldn't be putting it in your mouth," said Smith. "I just bought some fruit down the road here at a fruit stand. I hope to teach people that this is not just a novelty thing, 'Oh, we're just going to pick up some oranges because we think its nice and we'll put some in a bowl.' No, I want them to instead look at it as, 'If I eat this, I will feel better and it will help me change my life.'"

Smith recently lost 90 pounds and stands as an example of taking control and bettering ones health. After the death of his father, who suffered from diabetes, Smith said this goal is more important to him than ever.

Smith said he is bothered by the fact that there are not enough "healthy food" options when he comes back home to Jasper. "It makes me think we need to do something. People need choices and right now it's just not there," said Smith. "I think it would be nice to come back and build a healthy little southern restaurant right here at home."

Smith said perhaps one day he will also build a small glass studio on his family farm and grow old watching Salgueiro paint, but until then he plans to ride out his success as long as there are new dreams to sustain him. Although, he admits, with great success comes even greater responsibility.

"The hardest thing is living up to the hype," Smith said. "It all comes with a price. The more fame you have, the more responsibility."

Smith is not afraid of responsibility. In fact, he says, bring it on.

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