Art Smith: All About Oprah Winfrey's Former Chef

Chef Art Smith cookbook and hummingbird cake
Chef Art Smith cookbook and hummingbird cake - Static Media / Shutterstock / Getty

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Art Smith is famous for being Oprah Winfrey's former chef, but there's probably a lot that you don't know about him. Even though he's cooked for dignitaries and famous people from around the world, his Southern roots still shine through, making him very down-to-earth. He's an excellent example of someone who has taken their talents and connections to try to make positive changes in the world. Putting his food and storytelling talents to work, he has certainly made a positive impact in a variety of arenas.

Smith's humble beginnings helped make him who he is today, and he hasn't forgotten it. Nor has he left the South behind in his cooking style. His food philosophies help bring people and families together. Whether you're looking for a great Southern restaurant to try, a healthy cookbook, or personal inspiration, Chef Smith leads the way.

Read more: The Truth About The Worst Cooks In America

Art Smith's Southern Food Roots Come From His Hometown Of Jasper, Florida

Jasper, Florida 2019
Jasper, Florida 2019 - Jen Wolf/Shutterstock

Art Smith grew up in a small town called Jasper, Florida, with a family full of great cooks. He told Florida Foodie that his family "all believed in the power of food. You feed them, they come. You keep feeding them a lot, you get what you want" (via YouTube). His early food influences came from his mother Addie May, his grandmother Georgia, his grandmother Mabel, and Lela Curry, who served as his nanny and taught him to make soul food. However, he credits his mother with teaching him the finer points of Southern hospitality, which helped paved the way for his culinary successes.

Despite his later successes, he never forgot who he was and where he came from, which is why he gravitates toward making Southern cuisine and serving Southern comfort food in his restaurants. Oprah Winfrey emphasized this strategy to him when he worked for her.

His Southern roots and culinary influences come through in all his restaurants. There's even a whole moonshine menu and moonshine cakes in his restaurants as a nod to his great grandfather, who sold moonshine.

His Culinary Journey Began With Internships Rather Than Cooking School

The Greenbrier resort
The Greenbrier resort - MargJohnsonVA/Shutterstock

Smith didn't follow the traditional route that many chefs take when starting his career. When his university degree wasn't giving him what he needed, he sought out internships instead.

Smith's cooking education started at a Hospitality Management Program at Florida State University. It wasn't exactly what he wanted for his plans of becoming a chef, and he was flunking his classes. However, he was able to take advantage of several internships through the school to get what he needed to jump-start his career.

Smith's first internship was with The Greenbrier, a five-star resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, with a multitude of dining options. The harder gig to get was an internship with Walt Disney World, where he did a lot of cake baking. Even without the culinary background that most of the other interns had, he was able to beat out other contestants in a baking contest he entered.

His Career Has Included Working And Cooking For Lots Of Famous People

Art Smith and Michelle Obama
Art Smith and Michelle Obama - thechefartsmith / Instagram

Over his career, Art Smith has served royalty, presidents, governors, movie stars, music stars, and other celebrities. He's also served the pope and the Dalai Lama.

One of Smith's big breaks came when his dean at Florida State University put him in touch with Florida's then-governor, Bob Graham, to help him with his culinary needs. He walked in full of confidence and jazzed up the place with fancy silverware and excellent food, creating the image Graham's wife, Adele, wanted to portray to guests. One of those guests was ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Smith's first run was so successful that they hired him as chef.

His security clearance working for a head of state and the Grahams' connections to the White House got him in the door to work for five presidents and royalty. His security clearance allowed him to cook for Princess Diana when she visited Chicago. He was also the chef for Michelle Obama's book tour in 2019.

He Was Oprah Winfrey's Personal Chef For A Decade

Art Smith with James Beard Award and Oprah Winfrey
Art Smith with James Beard Award and Oprah Winfrey - Charles Arthur Smith / Facebook

Art Smith's road to becoming Oprah Winfrey's chef started with a party that Winfrey didn't even attend.

Smith made a Southern-inspired cassoulet for a party, impressing Oprah Winfrey's hairdresser, Andre Walker. Before the party was even over, Smith had a request on his answering machine to make lunch for Harpo Studios (Winfrey's production company) the next day. He created the meal at home and borrowed a neighbor's car to get it there. After three months of this, Oprah called him into her dressing room for a chef recommendation. He immediately volunteered himself over her objections that he must be too busy with his lunch gig for other projects.

Rather than starting out as Winfrey's personal chef, Smith started as the Oprah Book Club chef. However, eventually, he moved into a position as Winfrey's personal home chef in 1997. He cooked Winfrey's favorite foods for her for 10 years. And even after he left, he still helped as a chef for some of her important events.

He Has Opened Several Restaurants, Including One At Disney World

Southern food at Homecomin'
Southern food at Homecomin'

Today, Chef Art Smith has several restaurants open across the U.S. Since his food roots are Southern, every restaurant he has opened has a Southern theme, often mixing with local cuisine.

A couple of his restaurants are in the South. His Disney Springs restaurant, Homecomin', represents a real taste of Florida, showcasing Southern cuisine with local ingredients. In 2024, Smith claimed the restaurant has become one of the park's most popular restaurants. But even before arriving at Disney, travelers can find his Sunshine Diner in the Orlando International Airport. His other Southern-based restaurant was a hotel restaurant called Southern Art and Bourbon Bar in Atlanta, Georgia. Unfortunately, it's now permanently closed.

Chef Smith has also taken Southern food to the North. In Washington, D.C., you can find a hotel restaurant called Art & Soul. It mixes local modern cuisine with Southern cuisine. (One menu item is Maryland Crab Deviled Eggs.) If you're in New York City's Grand Central Station, you can find Art Bird & Whiskey Bar, with gourmet versions of Southern food like fried chicken, hot chicken, pulled pork, and grits. Meanwhile, he has two restaurants in Chicago. If you visit Navy Pier, you can find Reunion, which is the sister restaurant to Disney World's Homecomin' with a similar but different Southern menu. Smith's other Chicago restaurant is the Blue Door Kitchen & Garden (formerly Table Fifty-Two), which is a Midwestern farm-to-table restaurant featuring a seasonal local menu with Southern twists.

He's A Cookbook Author And Has Done Other Writing

Back to the Table book cover
Back to the Table book cover - Amazon

Chef Art Smith has written four cookbooks with big ideas in mind. He has also written for a few magazines and websites, so it's easy to find his food philosophies and recipes in print.

All Smith's cookbooks feature themes of family and community eating or healthy eating. He wrote his first cookbook, "Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family," in 2001, and it won a James Beard Award in 2002. The cookbook explores the role food plays in families and cultures, and includes recipes related to communal eating. His next cookbook, "Kitchen Life: Real Food for Real Families – Even Yours!," came out in 2004. It's meant to help busy families learn to plan and cook simple and healthy meals. In 2007, he wrote a companion book to his first called "Back to the Family: Food Tastes Better Shared With Ones You Love." The theme is honoring family and cultural food traditions while creating new, healthier ones. His latest cookbook came out in 2013 and is called "Art Smith's Healthy Comfort." This cookbook showcases delicious comfort recipes and advice for losing weight like Smith did when faced with diabetes.

There are other places where you might find Chef Smith's writings. Two places are in Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine and in articles on, where he's a contributing editor. He also contributes to Standup magazine. His writings at Standup benefit an anti-bullying organization called The Ben Foundation.

Storytelling Is Important To Him, So He Does A Lot Of Public Speaking

Art Smith's TEDxRiga talk
Art Smith's TEDxRiga talk - TEDx Talks / YouTube

Art Smith comes from a family of great storytellers. He easily commands the attention of a crowd with his down-to-earth and welcoming presence and Southern twang. So it's no wonder that he combines storytelling with public speaking professionally.

He's an engaging speaker who also offers food demos. He regularly speaks on several topics including food diplomacy, healthy comfort food, family cooking, being a chef with type-2 diabetes, using food as a platform for change in the community, and LGBTQ advocacy. The cost to book him ranges from $10,000 to $30,000 or less for virtual events.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush asked Smith to be the keynote speaker twice for "Celebration of Reading." It's a program sponsored by Florida's Foundation for Family Literacy. You can also find a video online of his TEDxRiga talk on "Food: The Polite Protest" from 2015, when he was speaking on behalf of the U.S. Diplomatic Culinary Chef Corp.

He's Also Appeared On Television

Art Smith's first appearance on Oprah's Book Club
Art Smith's first appearance on Oprah's Book Club - Charles Arthur Smith / Facebook

Chef Art Smith has been on many television shows. However, he made his first television appearance as the chef for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. He remembered that the moment he walked onto the stage with the soufflés, he was terrified would fall was the moment the world learned his name. It also marked the first of many television appearances.

The "Oprah Winfrey" show wasn't the only talk show he appeared on regularly over the years. He was also often on "The Today Show" and "Good Day Live." Some other talk shows you might have seen him on include "The Talk" and "The Dr. Oz Show." He's also appeared on some news programs like "Extra," "Entertainment Tonight, "Nightline" and "Fox News."

But his TV appearances went beyond talk shows and news. He was a regular tasting judge for "Iron Chef America." He also appeared on several shows in the Top Chef franchise, including "Top Chef," "Top Chef Masters," "Top Chef Duels," and "Top Chef Jr." Other food-based shows he's been on are "BBQ Pitmasters," and "Love, Charlie." He even played himself on the TV series "The Chi." He was also on "ABC's Lady Gaga Thanksgiving Special" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Supporting The Community With Charitable Causes Are A Big Deal To Him

Kid's Cafe young chef
Kid's Cafe young chef - Perspectives / Facebook

Causes near to Art Smith's heart have led him to found one non-profit organization and be on the board of another. Both were created with child nutrition in mind.

Art Smith and his Venezuelan-born husband Jesus Salgueiro worked together to create a program in 2003 called Common Threads to help educate low income children about food and how to cook. It has programs to help children make healthier food choices, hands-on culinary classes, and classes about nutrition. Plus, Smith uses it to teach diversity and tolerance, showcasing the similarities and differences in food from around the world. The program is in 11 cities and has reached over 513,000 students and over 93,000 adults so far. It has programs for younger children, teens, people with diseases, educators, and caregivers to maximize its impact.

Smith is also on the board of Kid's Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Guest chefs help children learn to prepare healthy meals and snacks and meals. The program generally has 45-50 children and their families each week who are participating in the Perspectives community program.

He Has Won Several Awards And Honorary Degrees

Art Smith receiving award from U.S. State Department
Art Smith receiving award from U.S. State Department - Charles Arthur Smith

Art Smith has won many awards for his work as a chef. Plus, even though he took the path of food-related internships rather than culinary school, he's received several honorary culinary degrees over the years.

He was honored as a person of the year in 2007 both by Chicago Magazine, who named him the "Chicagoan of the Year," and The James Beard Foundation, who called him "Humanitarian of the Year." He was inducted into the Chicago Culinary Museum's Hall of Fame in 2010, and the City of Chicago declared September 30, 2010, "Chef Art Smith Day." He also received an award in 2015 from the U.S. State Department for his work in Israel and the West Bank.

Despite never going to culinary school, Smith has two honorary degrees. His alma mater, Florida State University, gave him an Honorary MBA degree in 2008. This degree is from the same department he was in during his college days, The Dedman School of Hospitality. Additionally, he has an Honorary Doctorate of Culinary Arts from Johnson and Wales University, North Miami Campus, that he received in 2012.

He Tried To Revitalize His Hometown And Start A Culinary School There

Art Smith at Wardlaw-Smith House
Art Smith at Wardlaw-Smith House - Reunion Organization / Facebook

Art Smith's hometown has quadrupled in size since he lived there, but it continues to hold a place in his heart. So, around 2015, he hatched a plan to revitalize and bring new jobs to the town with funding from Walt Disney World and other investors.

The plan was to bring a commercial cake and biscuit bakery to the town, along with a farm store, and a new restaurant. Plus, he would open up a school to offer free classes in three areas: agriculture, meteorology, and cooking. The Reunion Florida Garden and Kitchen School would be in the historic Wardlaw-Smith House and would showcase food sustainability. The bakery -- set to open in a building that had once been used for Jai Alai and poker -- would bring jobs to more residents. Several acres of farmland were also supposed to provide jobs and resources for the school and bakery. Meanwhile, the school and bakery would supply baked goods to his restaurants around the country.

While investors helped him purchase places like the old Jai Alai courts and the antebellum mansion for the school, the plans didn't work long term as he'd hoped. As of 2024, we couldn't find a commercial bakery open in the building Smith had proposed. The nearest farm store to Jasper is about half an hour away in Live Oak, Florida. As of 2022, at least one reviewer mentioned new ownership of the cooking school mansion.

He's An Outspoken Gay Rights Activist

Art Smith with husband Jesus Salgueiro
Art Smith with husband Jesus Salgueiro - Charles Arthur Smith / Facebook

Art Smith and his husband, Jesus Salgueiro, are both outspoken gay rights activists. He's taken his message (and food) around the country and the globe. He even wrote an article in Time in 2012 denouncing Chick-Fil-A's anti-gay message.

In 2013, Smith and his husband were among the many gathered outside the Supreme Court while the justices were deciding the fate of U.S. marriage equality. He told the Washington Examiner that he wrote letters to influential people like Jeb Bush who had been instrumental in his career, urging them to push for gay rights. "I have cooked for every possible famous person in the world — kings and presidents — and I kept my mouth shut because I didn't want to do anything to take away from them. But the cook is now speaking up, and if they want me to cook for them, they sure as h*** better support me." In 2014, he was part of a chef-led and food-filled campaign in Mississippi opposed to an anti-gay law the state enacted.

After the U.S. provided gay marriage equality in the U.S., Smith took his diplomatic voice for change around in 2015 to celebrate pride with people from around the globe who didn't have the same freedoms. Then, he started hosting multiple-couple gay weddings. One in Florida in 2015 was officiated by Guy Fieri. Smith hosted another on "Top Chef" in 2016.

Quarantining With A Professional Athlete Helped Him Lose 70 Pounds

Art Smith doing exercise in cow field during quarantine
Art Smith doing exercise in cow field during quarantine - Chef Art Smith / Facebook

Art Smith told All Ears that he weighed 350 pounds at one point. "I played the whole funny fat chef thing," he said. However, his outlook changed after adopting four children. He said, "I wanna live a long, healthy life for them. You have to be responsible when it comes to your food choices, including cutting down on sugar and salt consumption. My number one rule is don't drink your calories. When you take better care of yourself, you take better care of others."

Losing weight has required Smith to eat healthier food and exercise. He was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes in 2008 and changed his diet, but he wasn't able to keep the weight off. Thus, he's had to lose some of his weight multiple times. He lost 125 pounds in 2012 back when he was running marathons. He also hired a personal trainer in 2016, who helped him lose 45 pounds.

In 2020, he was back to weighing 330 pounds. Luckily, a friend from Argentina, Lucas Cancelier, who was a rugby player and trainer, got stuck at his house in Jasper, Florida, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. During those three months, he lost 70 pounds by doing simple workout routines and jogging.

Hummingbird Cake Is Probably His Most Famous Dish

Chef Art Smith and hummingbird cake
Chef Art Smith and hummingbird cake - homecominfl / Instagram

Art Smith first found hummingbird cake in an issue of Southern Living Magazine. It first appeared in the magazine in 1978. While it has Jamaican origins, the magazine turned it into a classic Southern dessert.

Hummingbird cake is a banana pineapple cake with cream cheese frosting. However, Smith doesn't make his the traditional way since he omits pecans and makes other changes.

Hummingbird cake was one of the dishes he served to the powers that be at Walt Disney World when he was first promoting the idea of his Homecomin' restaurant. He's made it for various celebrities, including to celebrate Maya Angelou's 75th birthday, President Barack Obama's 50th birthday, and Lady Gaga's 25th birthday. He also serves it at several of his restaurants, including Blue Door, Reunion, and Homecomin'. It sometimes gets some extras, depending on where it's made. For example, at Homecomin', it comes with vanilla bean ice cream. Meanwhile, at Blue Door, it comes with pecans, coconut crumble, and a seasonal coulis on top.

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