Chef Art Smith doesn't do small. Never has.
So it's no surprise his new cookbook — Art Smith's Healthy Comfort — has a really big subtitle: "How America's Favorite Celebrity Chef Got It Together, Lost Weight, and Reclaimed His Health!"
This is the guy who has, in the past dozen years, cooked for Oprah, competed on Top Chef Masters (twice) and coached Lady Gaga on meal prep for a Thanksgiving TV show.
He's rolled out restaurants (including Art and Soul in Washington, D.C., and Southern Art in Atlanta) since Table Fifty-Two in Chicago, his first, began serving the Smith Family Twelve Layer Chocolate Cake in 2007. And he plans to open a LYFE Kitchen (Love Your Food Everyday) eatery in Chicago this year.
His Common Threads after-school program for low-income children expanded from Chicago to Miami, D.C., LA and East Palo Alto, Calif., reaching 33,000 kids this year.
And he piled on the pounds. Big time. So he decided to trim 50 off his 325-pound frame for his 50th birthday in 2010. Smith lost 120 instead.
Art Smith doesn't do small.
"Having a high-powered career and constantly wanting to be better and do better and do more takes a toll," he told us during a phone chat from D.C. "I'm a driven kind of person, and I think most people who are driven and hardworking don't really think about taking time off."
So he had to learn how to take time for himself and, most important, deal with Type 2 diabetes, a diagnosis he received in 2008. To help him learn to juggle all this, he turned to Aaron "Az" Ferguson, an L.A. health coach, who got him walking, biking and running.
"It felt so good I wanted to do more," says Smith. "I love attention — and I got a lot of attention — and I love wearing cute clothes. But in all seriousness, my Type 2 diabetes had gotten to a place where (doctors) had to get it in check.
"I needed to take care of that."
That his father and grandfather, both deceased, had diabetes, as does his 78-year-old mother, Addie Mae, fueled his mission.
"I've spent 20 years cooking for glamorous celebrities around the globe," he writes in Healthy Comfort (Harper One, $27.99), "but finally I realized that I needed to be glamorous to myself."
He cut out the six-pack of diet soda he'd been drinking daily and dug deep into why he ate. "When it comes to weight gain, particularly for people who have weight challenges, most of it is attributed to emotion," he says. "And I can tell you I am an emotional eater."
It meant rethinking favorite recipes that are the meat of Healthy Comfort, from eggplant Parmesan to fried chicken. He upped the flavor of the eggplant's tomato sauce by roasting the tomatoes, onions and garlic. Instead of frying, he created what he calls an "unfried chicken," dipping the bird in buttermilk and a Parmesan-crumb mix before baking.
His culinary remix favors roasting over frying.
"Roasting is probably the premier and probably the healthiest way to cook," he says. "If I was going to focus on two ways to eat my food, it would either be roasted or raw. Roasting intensifies the color and the flavor of food.
"My approach to food is to eat it in its whole state," adds Smith, who has teamed with Merck on its "Taking Diabetes to Heart" campaign. "So instead of reaching for juice, reach for fruit. Keep a big bowl of fruit in your house all the time. And when you think you drank a whole ocean of water, drink another ocean of water."
Smith grew up in North Florida, has been in Chicago since the early '90s, married longtime partner — artist Jesus Salgueiro in 2010 — and hopes people enjoy the book's stories as much as the recipes.
"I just wanted to show people that through all of this, through all the cooking for famous people in the world, to opening all the restaurants — that was all fun, that was all wonderful — but the reality was that without good health it didn't mean much."