Art Smith's Secret Weapon? Cooking Like Mom

PHOTO: Rockfish Meal

Art Smith has cooked for luminaries like Nelson Mandela, the Obama Family and Oprah Winfrey, owns top restaurants in Chicago and Washington D.C., and started a ground-breaking charity for children, but this award-winning chef has his own very personal definition of success.

"Success is when you can take your own mother with you on a trip, okay?" he recently told Nightline.

For Smith, food and family life have always been closely intertwined. Born and raised on a farm in Jasper, Fla., Smith grew up in an atmosphere where food was abundant and played an integral part in any gathering.

"We always went to church which I didn't mind but I particularly liked the fact that there was always food," says Smith. "I knew at the end of this very long winded sermon either there was going to be food at the church or we were going to go to my Grandmother Georgia's or Grandmother Mabel's and it was going to be this laid out fabulous, wonderful meal."

Smith credits his mother, Addie Mae -- whom he calls "my biggest confidante"-- for teaching him about the finer points of hospitality and setting an example with her gregarious personality. "My mother has this incredible way with people. She is the ultimate baby kisser!"

CLICK HERE for Smith's favorite recipes.

The women of his extended family also played a pivotal role in shaping his destiny. "These steel magnolias that I grew up with, [they] really knew the importance of food." He considers his nanny Leela Curry, his second mother. "Not only did she teach me about delicious food in particularly from African American culture but also she taught me the importance of love."

A Fan of Martha, Smith Believes 'You Live Life Once so Make Sure It's Pretty!'

After high school, Smith tried out college at Florida State, but quickly decided that he belonged in a kitchen, not a classroom. He headed north, landing at West Virginia's fabled Greenbrier resort, where he discovered that Southern food could be as elegant as it is comforting, and came to an important realization. "I remember ... just kinda seeing the whole picture ... I know I want to make pretty food and I want to like take care of people."

Smith returned to Florida to attend the Walt Disney World College Program, and shortly thereafter, the stars aligned. Mikhail Baryshnikov happened to be coming into town, and Florida Governor Bob Graham was thinking of hiring Smith to cook for the legendary ballet dancer. Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Smith did what any other novice chefs would have done in the same situation: he consulted Julia.

"To be quite honest with you -- I didn't really know how to cook," recalls Smith. "All I can tell you was I pulled out Julia Child and to town I went! I cooked out of Julia Child bless her heart ... I made a wonderful meal and then after that I got the job," he jokes.

Smith cites yet another domestic goddess as a major early influence, telling Nightline "I was such a Martha groupie when Martha first came out. Still am -- Martha, I love you!! You live life once so make sure it's pretty! Pretty! Pretty!" Shortly after auditioning for the governor, Smith was permanently hired as a personal chef for Graham and his family. He trained alongside the kitchen staff who taught him to cook the old-fashioned way. "I learned so much from those lessons," he tells Nightline.

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