Art Smith's Secret Weapon? Cooking Like Mom

PHOTO: Rockfish MealCourtesy Thomas Krakowiak

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."

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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.

After four years, Smith got an offer to work aboard a Dutch boat, and he immediately seized the opportunity, knowing that some life adventure could only benefit his cuisine.

"I had to see the world. I had to taste it. I had to smell the smells. I had to see the things I had read. Mind you, in those days we did not have Google! We had the Britannica encyclopedias and that was the way you'd learn!"

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Smith's wanderlust proved to be fruitful and had a strong influence on his generous style of hospitality. "The traveling opened up my love for cooking and to this day it still does. I have a saying that goes like this 'Wherever you go, whatever you do, you take a little bit back with you.'"

Smith eventually landed in Chicago, where he worked for his idol, Martha Stewart, then spent a decade as Oprah's personal chef, yet another job he scored in spectacular fashion: he flew the red eye cross-country to make her lunch. While he no longer works for Oprah full-time, he is still her go-to guy for her private events and frequently contributes to her show and magazine.

In 2007, Smith opened his first restaurant, Table Fifty-Two, after a chance encounter with interior designer Julie Latsko. He says it was karma, but one suspects Smith's considerable charm might just have played a part. "I learned from my mother when someone's knockin' at the door, pay attention because you never know how that may influence your whole life. All I know is that I never used a resume in my entire life."

Earlier this year someone did come knocking, when Barack and Michelle Obama paid a surprise visit to Chicago. "When the president and the first lady came to Table Fifty-Two for Valentine's Day, all I can tell you was it was the Valentine's dinner heard around the world!"

Although Smith had already cooked for the Obamas, his staff was mum about the VIP visitors. "No one told me nothing because they know how excited I get!" The visit led to a media feeding frenzy but Smith didn't mind the attention one bit. "My philosophy: no buzz no business!" he says.

The first lady has famously made a pet cause of healthy eating, and Smith doesn't think his Southern style of food is at odds with the current craze for fresh, local ingredients. "What's interesting was that we were just simple folk but we ate fresh from the garden…Even though we had fried chicken and all these other different foods there was always a salad, you know. There was always some sense of fresh near the table."

Smith: 'When We Sit Down at the Table, We All Speak the Same Language'

In 2003, he founded Common Threads, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching kids about the joys of healthy eating. He believes that children will love fresh nutritious food, provided they are exposed to it. "The fact is if a child doesn't know what fresh tastes like, if they've never had fresh in their mouth," he says.

The charity stems from Smith's core belief that food can always brings people together in spite of other barriers. "When we sit down at the table we all speak the same language. 'It worked for me, honey, and it'll work for you!'"

Case in point: "I adore peanut M&Ms. I think they are fabulous! Hello! I saw a lot of M&Ms at the White House, so I think someone else likes them, okay? And I saw them in both administrations!"

Smith also keeps busy writing cookbooks (3 of them to date) and teaching classes at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy. Despite these many ventures, Smith always puts his restaurant first. "I can tell ya' after a long period of time without people seeing you -- they can tell in the restaurant. I think that's very important and that the public must be able to taste your food."

When he's not at the restaurant or traveling the globe to cook for high-profile clients, Smith is at home with his life partner, artist Jesus Salgueiro, and their menagerie of pets. The couple has 6 cats, 3 dogs and -- at last count --15 fish. Smith is willing to accommodate when it comes to food, but not his beloved animals. "I'm very understanding of people when they can't eat this or that but don't be comin' in my house saying you don't like cats or dogs because you can carry yourself right out! Okay?"

Whether he's cooking for Julia Roberts or Nelson Mandela, the formula is always the same for this tried-and-true Southerner. "People say to me 'Art Smith, this reminds me of my mother's cooking' or 'This reminds me of my grandmother's cooking' -- hook line sinker we have caught them!"