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Glad to Be Home

Now that he’s returned to his native Florida and opened up a restaurant at Disney Springs, Art Smith is right where he belongs.

Long before Art Smith was an established chef with restaurants around the country, had a presence on TV shows like Top Chef Masters and several cookbooks on the shelf, he was a student at the Florida State University School of Hospitality Management unsure of what his future held. That’s when he became part of the first Disney College program, an experience that would prove pivotal to his career.

“I realized I wanted to bake and cook. The chefs I worked with were truly wonderful mentors,” Smith recalls. “But I took away more than new skills. The Disney approach to hospitality and customer experience has influenced everything I have done. In all my restaurants, everyone is treated like family. Every dinner is an experience. I want every encounter to be a fond memory.”

Using the internship as a springboard into the world of cooking, the Jasper native’s credentials are as impressive as the food he plates. He worked for both Bob Graham and Jeb Bush during each one’s time as governor; served as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef for many years and has created Southern-inspired meals for everyone from former President Barack Obama to Lady Gaga.

These days Smith keeps busy managing his culinary empire—which now includes Homecomin’ Florida Kitchen at Disney Springs—along with being a husband and father. He is also fully engaged in giving back (one of his James Beard nods was for Humanitarian of the Year). In 2003, he created the nonprofit Common Threads which teaches low-income children how to cook and encourages cultural diversity. Smith, along with his family, left their fancy digs in Chicago and returned to Jasper where he has grand plans to revive the sleepy farm town just south of Georgia’s border by opening a culinary school of sorts in a restored mansion he purchased from a local community college.

“Reunion Florida Garden and Kitchen School in Jasper is part of my commitment to reviving my hometown. The big picture involves creating a commercial bakery, a farm store, a restaurant and a school for meteorology, agriculture and cooking,” Smith says.

We caught up with Smith during a break from his hectic schedule to talk about his Florida roots, his love of food and found out why he is the same person in the kitchen no matter who the dinner guests are.

You have several restaurants, but because of your Florida roots, is there something a little extra special having Homecomin’ at Disney Springs?
The menu at Homecomin’ Florida Kitchen is my Florida. I grew up in Jasper—my family has been there for six generations. My food memories include seasonally inspired meals prepared with local honey, eggs, beef and pork. Shrimp on our table came from Mayport near Jacksonville. The recipes we are using are inspired by my mother’s cooking. But most of all, this restaurant is my homecoming to Florida. I have a home in Chicago, but I have shifted our home base to Jasper. I want my children to grow up with the same values and love of the land my parents instilled in me.

You come from a family of farmers in rural Florida, so how young did your connection to food and respecting ingredients start?
At my mother’s and aunt’s tables as far back as I can remember. They cooked and baked with what was available. We lived off the land raising cattle and other livestock and vegetables. The family farms sustained our lives and for that we respected the land and water that is at the heart of today’s agriculture industry in Florida. Florida farmers and ranchers are key to the state’s economic success.

When did becoming a chef click for you? I’ve read where you’ve talked about your time at Florida State being a time when you started to find your way with cooking, was it then?
The Disney College program made everything click in place. I am still involved with Florida State University as a culinary ambassador working to improve food services for students. It’s a concept I would like to expand throughout the state’s university system and team up with other chefs.

Was it overwhelming at all going from a college kid to cooking for the governor?
I was in the right place at the right time while a student at FSU and from that stepped into a coveted position as chef in the governor’s mansion. I cooked for Bob Graham and Jeb Bush. My food—especially my fried chicken – takes no sides. I have remained close to both families. Whether you are cooking for heads of state or your neighbors, every meal is a bit overwhelming. If you are passionate about this profession you forget titles and concentrate on the menu before you. The table is a magical place where everyone comes together.

How did you end up meeting Oprah and becoming her personal chef?

It was fate, and a series of business relationships that led me to Martha Stewart and then onto Oprah. When I am mentoring young people I always remind them that building relationships is so important. You just never know when one door will lead to another.

Oprah must have had some pretty interesting dinner guests over the years, any memorable stories?
You maintain celebrity friendships by respecting their privacy. But I marvel every day that I have prepared food for royalty, heads of state and celebrities. Oprah certainly opened a lot of doors for me and for that I am forever grateful. I think I had the most butterflies cooking for Nelson Mandela. Whether it’s Prince Harry, the Dalai Lama or the Obamas, they are all just people. My platform allows me to thank them for all the lives they have touched. It’s such a humbling experience.

Does cooking for such high-profile folks force you to step outside of your comfort zone at all or do you stick with what brought you to the dance?

With Oprah, Lady Gaga and the others, I generally stick with what brought me to the dance. When Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello wanted fried chicken at their wedding I wasn’t going to bring them prime rib. But occasionally I slip in a twist or two. Occasionally.

Do you shy away from the term celebrity chef?
I don’t call myself that. Others do. I understand it, but at the end of the day I’m a husband, father and son who simply cares deeply for his family and friends. I want everyone to feel welcome at the table. There are expectations and distractions that come with the word “celebrity” that can cloud your goals. For me I see it as a platform to make the world a better place. I use my celebrity to champion peace, love and programs that help fight childhood obesity. I learned that from Oprah and so many others.

You are very involved with giving back, especially with Common Threads. Why do you think food is not only a great educational tool, but also one that can have a profound effect on people’s lives?
Food is the catalyst that can influence your entire life. Making nutritious choices, eating indulgent foods in moderation and respecting how food gets to your kitchen are things that can be taught. If a child isn’t properly fueled, they won’t perform well in school or on the athletic field. Hunger tears at a child’s self-esteem and physical growth. This is fixable. We have the capability and tools to feed the world.

Is there one dish or food trend you just can’t wrap your head around?
Fusion spun out of control. Don’t get me wrong, I love melding techniques and ingredients, but sometimes the result is that nothing makes sense. Good food, quality ingredients, cooked well. That’s all you need to know.

What are the must-have basic ingredients any home cook should have in their kitchen?
Good olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh seasonal ingredients including garden-fresh herbs and local honey.

You and your husband are parents and that happened in kind of a unique way, can you share the story and tell us what it’s been like?

My husband Jesus [Salgueiro] and I started our journey seeking to be foster parents and that didn’t work out. We were heartbroken because we had already fallen in love with the children. Then our friend, Dr. Dora Maya, president and CEO of Arden Shore Child and Family Services in Waukegan, Ill., presented another opportunity. She told Jesus about two sisters in need of a forever home. Our spirits rallied. Jesus wanted to know more about the girls and Dr. Maya told him there were two brothers as well, but they had been separated from the girls because no one wants to adopt four children. Before even talking to me, Jesus put everything in motion to reunite this family and enrich our own family. Of course, I was thrilled. Raising children is a lot of work but worth every minute and we are blessed to have a village to help us out.

With everything you have going on from home life to the restaurants to other endeavors—do you ever get a chance to take a breath; what do you like to do to unwind and escape from your hectic schedule?
When I am on the road, I long to be at home in Florida. Nothing relaxes me more than time with my husband and our four children. Jesus and I often slip away to Cedar Key or the many other historic villages of Florida. You grow up wanting to get away and then you find your heart at home in that very same place. From Key West to the south and to Perdido Key in the Western Panhandle, Florida still fascinates me.

One of your signature dishes is, of course, the fried chicken. How long did it take you to perfect it?
My mother Addie Mae gets all the credit for my fried chicken. So, I guess the answer is decades. How I brine and season the pieces has evolved a bit as my businesses grew to feed more and more people. But there it one thing to remember about fried chicken: It’s a deeply personal food. How we judge how it tastes is based on how family members made it, favorite restaurants and so much more. Food nourishes the soul. And fried chicken is no exception.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s February 2018 issue.