Last month, Art Smith—best known for his decade-long stint as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef—opened Art and Soul on Capitol Hill. Now the Chicago-based chef is spending 12 days a month in DC, hanging his hat at the Affinia Liaison hotel, where his restaurant is located.
The Southern-born Smith is no stranger to the District: Before connecting with Oprah, he cooked for former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham’s family and spent lots of time with them in Washington. “My family has a lot of DC connections, too—my dad was a congressional page, and my aunt was one of the Washington Redskins weather girls,” Smith laughs. “She told the weather in a bathing suit.”
With an incoming President who’s also from Chicago, there have been plenty of murmurs about Smith as a potential White House chef. He’s cooked for the Obamas before, at a dinner hosted by Winfrey. So has he been approached by the new administration? “They’re just rumors, but it’s nice to hear those rumors,” is all he’ll say.
On a day off back home in the Windy City, Smith took a few minutes to share some of his (and Oprah’s!) Kitchen Favorites.
Favorite place to grocery shop?
“I just had this really in-depth conversation with Alice Waters—I was telling her why I just don’t like shopping in supermarkets anymore. I was just told yesterday about an amazing farmers market in Dupont Circle. I need to get over there to check it out. You can get fantastic stuff in this area because there’s Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, all so close. I grew up on a farm in northern Florida—my family still has the farm after 100 years. My father gave my mother a pair of donkeys for their 50th anniversary.”
Favorite DC area chef?
“Besides [Art and Soul executive chef] Ryan Morgan? He’s like my twin separated at birth, even though he’s like half my age. At his age, I couldn’t have done what he’s doing. I’ve always really loved Michel [Richard] from Citronelle and Central. He’s a wonderful man, I love that he came from California, where every day is pretty, and wanted to be in Washington.”
What’s your favorite thing about the DC food scene?
“There are a lot of fabulous ethnic restaurants where there’s not a name behind it but the food sure tastes like there’s a name behind it. Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian—I love just foraging for a restaurant. The other night, it must have been midnight and chef Ryan took me out in Chinatown. I had simple little braised dumplings and they were delicious.”
Favorite dish on the menu at Art and Soul?
“I love, love, love the hoecakes. They’re my mother’s recipe that she still makes. It’s a corn cake, it doesn’t have a lot of leavening in it, so it’s kind of heavy but really good. We get amazing cornmeal from Virginia. Chef Ryan had the idea of topping those with different things. My most favorite of all is called the Pantry—it’s our local greens, bleu cheese, apples, and just a little bit of olive oil. It’s simple, all vegetarian, and just has a wonderful flavor.”
Do you have a favorite local burger? Have you tried Spike Mendelsohn’s place, Good Stuff Eatery, also on Capitol Hill?
“I haven’t, but I think he’s talented and I liked him when I guest-judged Top Chef. He’s sweet and he’s hip—I like that. You know what I love? It’s an old standby, but I love the chili dog at Ben’s Chili Bowl. In Chicago, we have a similar place called Wiener’s Circle, it’s really good late at night because chefs are truly creatures of the night.”
“I love a good breakfast—I think it’s my most favorite meal. My local favorite is Johnny’s Half Shell. They have a great guy—I think his name is Jim—who’s a great oyster shucker. I love a good crab cake and an egg for breakfast. My most favorite thing to make, it sounds kind of fancy, but I cut a really good bread from the Poilane bakery in Paris, and I make a toad-in-the-hole with a nice organic egg and a little butter. I don’t use any other bread because it just doesn’t taste the same. I love it with a cappuccino with organic coffee and organic milk. I try to keep everything organic at home.”
Favorite dish on the Thanksgiving table?
“In the South, we don’t stuff a bird—we dress a bird. My favorite thing is my cornbread dressing. My mom made hers with crumbled cornbread and some white bread, and I use all cornbread, but we all use the holy trinity, which is celery, onion, and bell pepper. You need a really good, strong broth, no bouillion in there. I like to throw in turkey sausage and apple for a little sweetness. And you’ve got to have killer gravy with it. I’ll be in DC for Thanksgiving this year, cooking at the restaurant. I’m planning on doing some oyster dressing.”
Favorite place for Chicago pizza? Is there anywhere decent in DC?
“Chicago’s going to hate me, but I hate Chicago pizza. Once upon a time, friends of mine did a trip to Italy as a charity event and I fell in love with Italian thin-crust pizza. I’m just not a big fan of deep-dish. They don’t cook the vegetables, and I don’t like hot, raw bell peppers and stuff. I like pizza cooked in a really hot oven with a crisp crust.”
What’s Oprah’s favorite dish?
“Ms. Winfrey spent a large majority of her life in Baltimore when she started out, and if you ever want to make her smile, make a crab cake. I use Maryland crab, and I don’t put much binder in them. When you touch them, they fall apart—that’s how it should be.”