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!"
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."
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!"