Art Smith has worked as a chef for Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey but neither trailblazing icon can compare on the perfectionist scale with a certain trombone-playing music major friend Smith went to school with at Florida State University. "Scott Peacock will look for the cow to make the butter! " Smith recalls laughing. "There's a reason why Scott and [late mentor and co-author] Edna [Lewis] were so perfect for each other. She was just as much a perfectionist about food as he was." Smith still remembers the first meal the future Atlanta chef prepared for him at his house in 1983: "He made tortellini for me and it was delicious. He made them from scratch and probably made them five times before he would let me eat them. I remember telling him, 'You need to stop with the trombone lessons and study to become a chef.'" Peacock took Smith's advice. Years later, Smith was working as a chef on a yacht when Peacock called up his old FSU friend for a favor. He had been offered a job working as the executive chef for Georgia governor Joe Frank Harris but couldn't accept the position unless he found someone to take over in the kitchen at the plantation he was working at in Moultrie, Georgia. Would Smith consider filling the position? He agreed. The job at the Georgia governor's mansion would launch Peacock's culinary career. "Scott Peacock truly taught me to appreciate perfection," says Smith. "And that's coming from someone who worked for Martha Stewart. And Scott is a hell of a lot nicer too!"
Smith is recalling his 25-year culinary career over a double espresso at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead. The celebrity chef's first Atlanta restaurant, Southern Art and Bourbon Bar, opens inside the hotel Wednesday. Smith recently spent an hour with Dish discussing his Southern roots and his goals for Southern Art while dishing up a few delicious stories about cooking for Winfrey, Stewart, and their celebrity friends. The trimmed down author (Smith has recently dropped 120 pounds), "Top Chef Masters" vet and Chicago and Washington D.C. restaurateur jogs each morning down Peachtree Road past his new restaurant. Being back in "the New York City of the South" gives the Jasper, Florida native time to think about his Southern upbringing.
"Sadly, when we think about Southern food, traditionally, it's pretty sloppy," he says. "There's much more to Southern food than mac and cheese. One of the cliches about Southern cooking is that it's messy, muddy and starchy. Not everything has to be fried. Growing up in my South, a salad was served at every meal. It wasn't mac and cheese, it was salad. In my South, rice was served instead of potatoes and done different ways. In my South, a 12-layer chocolate cake was the traditional birthday cake. It wasn't pineapple upside down cake. In my South, we didn't drink mint juleps but we drank some pretty delicious punch that may or may not have been enhanced with someone's flask. We didn't have chips and dips. We had a nice peppery cheese straw. At Southern Art, I want to demonstrate that cleanness and freshness. Southern cooking can be light. Simple can be done well. It can be elegant. It's a way to ask ourselves, 'What is the art of all this?'" Smith is extremely familiar with the grass-fed beef on the Southern Art's menu too. It will be delivered from his family's South Georgia cattle ranch. "My family is three and a half hours away," he explains. "We live right at the border. This family farm has been in the family so long that we didn't feed our cattle grass because it was fancy. We did it because we were poor and that's all we knew how to do."
Southern Art's much-anticipated artisanal ham bar will also be open for breakfast starting at 6:30 weekdays, according to Smith. "There's nothing better than a great ham biscuit in the morning," he explains. "To know ham is to love ham. To truly appreciate ham, you have to love it. But to make ham, you really have to love it. It's a long, long process. To be honest, I'm kind of porked out right now. One of the last food festivals I went to, it was just pork, pork, pork, pork. I grew up like that and I understand it but I don't need all of that in my diet. But if I'm going to eat pork, I want something really special. I love a great ham, particularly a great cured ham. There are a lot of different degrees of saltiness and textures. When you go to Spain or Italy, you see these great selections of proscuittos and parmas. So why not a bar that would showcase these beautiful artisan hams that are aged by hand and being produced in the South? Some of them are cured in salt, some are cured in sugar. It's a way to celebrate this heritage."
Atlanta director, studio mogul and FOO (Friend of Oprah) Tyler Perry lives down the street from Southern Art and Smith knew one of Perry's favorites had to be included on his Atlanta menu. "I've known Mr. Perry for many years now and he loves my cinnamon rolls," he says. "So, the cinnamon rolls on the Southern Art menu will be named Tyler's Rolls. He loves my baking and my greens and sweet potatoes. He loves those flavors. He's from Louisiana so he knows all about Southern cooking."
Smith says he doesn't often get starstruck but when Oprah Winfrey hosted a meal for Nelson Mandela a few years back, he admits to having a few anxious moments. The evening, featuring some of Mandela's favorite foods, came off perfectly. A few mornings later, Smith and Winfrey debriefed in the kitchen while he was preparing her breakfast frittata. "I remember saying to her, 'Miss Winfrey, Mr. Mandela is downright Biblical. He was just bigger than life, wasn't he?' Oprah told me, 'Art, you were so nervous I didn't know if you were going to bow or curtsy!'" Smith laughs and adds: "I told her, 'He's one of the most famous men of our time. I wanted to cover all my bases, Oprah!'"
Through Oprah, Smith also discovered that Lady Gaga is a fan who rooted for him on the first season of "Top Chef Masters." When the pop star was booked on "Oprah," he whipped up a batch of chicken and waffles for her backstage. He recalls: "She ran out of her dressing room and told me, 'Chef Art, I love you! I was so sad when you didn't win 'Top Chef Masters.' I told her, 'Honey, you've proved my point. You don't have to win. You just have to be remembered!"
While his Southern Art culinary team of executive chef Anthony Gray, pastry chef Meredith Miller, head mixologist Brian Stanger and general manager Alain Zemmour is now in place, the eatery's owner and namesake says he still plans to be in Atlanta two weeks out of every month over the next year as Southern Art gets up and running in Buckhead. He's well aware that his celebrity chef restaurant is steps away from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Market at the W Buckhead and more importantly, Tom Collicchio's failed Craft Atlanta and Craftbar at the Mansion and Emeril Lagasse's long-gone Emeril's Atlanta location down the street. "I know I'm going into territory that's been tough for a lot of celebrity chefs," he acknowledges. "I know them all. They're all friends of mine. But I think a big problem is that everybody wants to see them and there's only one of them. But it's important for a chef to have a presence. People want to see that face. People want to know that you've touched the food in some way. The only person who could get away with not being there is Colonel Sanders. Atlanta has a lot of Southern restaurants but hopefully it can stand another one. One that has a more rural feel to it. There's going to be a certain casualness about it."
Smith's goal for Southern Art can be summed up simply: "America is in love with the romance of the South. We've got to bring the romance back." Art Smith's courtship with Atlanta begins Wednesday night at 5 p.m. Call for reservations: 404-946-9070.