Art Smith is coming home. The celebrity chef who has served his famous (and usually healthy) fried chicken to Oprah Winfrey and four U.S. presidents is returning to his birthplace in Jasper, a Florida city rich with Southern charm and weeping willows.
And he's bringing along his entourage — a husband and five children — as he works to reinvigorate this city of just 1,600 people.
Smith and his husband, Jesus Salguerio — who married five years ago in an over-the-top D.C. wedding that included a performance by Moby — have long been fixtures on the celebrity scene. Smith spent nearly a decade as Winfrey's personal chef (and she introduced him to his new pal Lady Gaga), has served a vegetarian version of his fried chicken to the Dali Lama, and recently catered an after-party for Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello's star studded wedding.
He maintains a breathtaking pace. In between writing several cookbooks, revamping his Chicago restaurant, a farm-to-table concept now called Blue Door Farm and Garden, advocacy work for gay rights, and his cooking program for kids, the couple also adopted four siblings from Illinois foster care and is raising the children's 15-year-old cousin. The plan was to stay in Chicago, where he has made his life for 25 years.
But just two years after the adoptions were finalized, Smith has moved his family to the Florida-Georgia border. Responding to a request from the mayor of Jasper, Smith purchased a grand antebellum mansion in nearby Madison that he's turning into a cooking and gardening school, while also remodeling a Victorian farmhouse in Jasper for his family.
"The need for farm-to-table education has never been greater," said Smith, 56.
Much of his focus in recent years has been on creating healthier versions of indulgent foods. The push-and-pull of obesity and healthy eating is a personal matter for the chef. He dropped 125 pounds four years ago and even ran two marathons, but saw the weight creeping back. So recently he began a new exercise regimen and lost 45 pounds.
But he still loves his classic fried Southern food.
"You can't tell people who have been making this food for centuries to stop making it. ... I'm not going to do it. I think you can have stupendous fried chicken that comes from a humane place" served with fresh, raw vegetables and lower calorie sides. "It's important to re-engage people back to where their food comes from and to have the appreciation and the respect in growing it."
The Florida Garden and Kitchen School is slated to begin courses this fall online and in-person. Smith will teach many of the courses himself. His bakery will open later this year and will supply desserts for his other big project, a restaurant opening at Disney Springs this summer. The bakery and gardens also will supply food to three other restaurants Smith is planning to open in Florida that will center around his fried chicken, of course.
"Every time guests come to our restaurant and eat a piece of cake they will have a part in building a piece of hometown Florida," said Smith.
When Smith decided to move back to Jasper, it was with the goal of creating jobs in this once thriving agricultural community. He is hopeful that the school, bakery and acres of farmlands will boost the economy, drawing from local labor and local produce to fulfill his farm-to-table vision. Even his children, ages 7 to 13, have a role in Smith's plan to improve his community.
"That part of the state, it ain't Miami," Smith said. "My children are Cuban Americans. By them coming to Jasper, they are teaching the kids in the school how important it is to be bilingual. We've got a lot of work to do and we don't need to alienate anybody. We need to be loving and giving and accepting. The town, we've sort of come in like a tornado and they don't care. They've been very loving and accepting."
But going from a childless couple to a party of seven overnight was not easy. They started with three nannies, but now are down to just one. Smith also struggled to keep up with their energy, but said it's better now that he has lost weight.
"For a man that spent half his life worshipping Martha Stewart and perfection, that's not how life is," he said. "A life with kids is a life of imperfection. But what you have to do is find perfection in imperfection, and that's the beauty of life."
His oldest child recently wrote an early Valentine to his "papis," thanking them for saving him. "I never want to lose you," the boy wrote.
"This made me cry and to think they wanted to deny (gay) adoptions in Florida," said Smith, who rallied celebrity chefs from across the country to host a mass gay wedding in South Beach last year shortly after it was legalized.
"He has this great platform and he just speaks and doors open because you can tell it's coming from his heart," said actress Angela Bassett, who became friends with Smith after he noticed her sitting alone at a New Orleans restaurant. "It's what we all wish we could do, but he actually does it."