While shivering through his first Chicago winter, celebrity chef and Florida native Art Smith remembers the advice a local friend gave him.
“He said, ‘Just imagine that the snow is sand. Like sand on the beach.’ But I said, ‘Well, this sand is coooold!’”
The imagery must have helped, because Smith’s lived in Chicago for nearly 30 years now, making it the home base for his extraordinary culinary career. Most famously, Smith worked as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef for a decade. Today he writes award–winning cookbooks, runs 20 top restaurants, supports numerous charities and cooks for people such as Lady Gaga and President Barack Obama.
Not only is he still on kitchen duty, he’s on daddy duty. Smith and his partner, artist Jesus Salgueiro, recently adopted four siblings, ranging in age from 6 to 12, from foster care at Arden Shore Child & Family Services in north suburban Waukegan. He’s since taken them all over Chicago. “I’m a sixth generation Floridian, and I miss it sometimes,” he said, “but I love Chicago.”
When Smith sees his former boss now, he usually cooks for her at home. But if they go out in Chicago, Oprah fancies RL, the swanky, mahogany–paneled restaurant by Ralph Lauren. It’s next to Lauren’s Michigan Avenue store, the largest Polo store in the world.
“RL has become that special place in Chicago. The most gorgeous room is the new Oak Room,” he said. “If you want to make an impression, that’s the place. To seal a deal, check out Chicago Q.”
Smith loves to show off the city to visiting friends. He usually takes them on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat tour of the Chicago River, or on a leisurely run along Lake Michigan.
“There’s nothing better than Lake Michigan. Every person I’ve ever brought to Chicago loves it,” he said. “The path goes on forever and ever and ever. When I trained for the Chicago Marathon, that’s where I ran.”
A resident of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Smith and his family often hang out close to home. He’ll take the kids, who call him “Papi,” to play at Kenwood Community Park, watch the chicken eggs hatch at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, dine on dim sum in Chinatown, or take a road trip to Gurnee and ride the roller coasters at Six Flags Great America. Sometimes they’ll squeeze in a stop at the Gurnee Mills shopping mall. “We go everywhere. The kids even love going to O’Hare,” he said. “They think it’s so interesting.”
Buttermilk fried chicken is the famed dish at Smith’s new Blue Door Farm & Tavern in Chicago (at the same location as his former Table Fifty-Two restaurant). When Oprah publicly said she loved it, everyone wanted to try it. “Never underestimate the power of fried chicken,” he said, laughing. “As simple as it might be, it’s powerful.” But Smith’s favorite thing on the menu? The catfish. “It reminds me of home,” he said.
Fresh ingredients mean everything to a chef. Smith’s Blue Door Farm & Tavern relies on farms across the region, letting the season dictate what ends up on the menu. He also buys a lot of his produce at Chicago’s Green City Market, and will snatch up farm-made cheese and ice cream at Fair Oaks Farms Chicago.
He’s most excited about the food grown for Common Threads, an after–school gardening and cooking program he launched in Chicago. It has helped more than 144,000 children across the country. Smith hopes to add Southern cooking into the curriculum soon. “It saddens me that no one teaches people how to make a biscuit,” he said.