Chef Art Smith comes from the world of culinary stardom, but he much prefers to focus on philanthropy. As a sixth-generation Floridian, Smith grew up in the town of Jasper, a rural community of less than 2,000 in Hamilton County. Despite his humble beginnings, he has served as personal chef for Oprah Winfrey, as well as Governors Bob Graham and Jeb Bush. He also has cooked for heads of state including President Barack Obama. He recently signed on to oversee the food and beverage offerings at 1500 South, a local temple of Southern cuisine at the Naples Bay Resort. Aside from his latest venture in Naples, Smith is the proprietor of restaurants in Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. He is opening a tuition-free cooking school in Madison, near Jasper, and is very involved with Common Threads, his charity devoted to inspiring children to make healthy food choices. Earlier this year in Naples, Smith hosted a children’s healthy cooking class as a fundraiser for Community School of Naples, raising $25,000 for the financial aid program.
Why he became a chef: I grew up in a family where food was important. And I love throwing parties; I’m from a culture where the only parties were receptions after church. But I really became a chef to bring about change in society. The restaurants are vehicles for that.
Healthy spin on Southern food: You probably don’t go to a Southern restaurant to eat healthy. But if you’re having fried chicken, balance it with a nice salad. And Southerners eat more vegetables than anyone can possibly imagine.
On cooking for Oprah: She’s a lovely person. I wouldn’t have cooked for her if she wasn’t nice. She wasn’t demanding or picky, and she let me cook for all her fancy friends, including Nelson Mandela.
Most unusual item in his fridge: Hummingbird cakes. They’re banana-pineapple cakes, a classic Southern dessert.
On managing diabetes: When I was first diagnosed, I went on a diet and lost 100 pounds. If you’re careful, diet and medication can reverse it. I’ve been very fortunate with that. Most people eat too much processed food and consume too much white sugar. Now I’m running marathons.
If he wasn’t a chef: I would have been a missionary. The denomination wouldn’t matter; my whole life is about food and sharing. I’m trying to educate people about where their food comes from.
On giving back: I started Common Threads 12 years ago with an organic garden and kitchen, and it has morphed into a healthy cooking program that has reached 120,000 kids. It’s free. Restaurants come and go, but changing a child’s life has a permanent impact and lasting value.