Oprah's chef urges return to the family dinner table

Sunday, January 20, 2002

CHICAGO -- Chef Art Smith has cooked for the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, but names he prefers to drop include Grandmother Georgia, Aunt Evelyn and Grandmother Mabel.

Smith credits these family members with creating some of his most cherished memories, the food and traditions from the family dinner table in rural Florida where he grew up.

After all, he says, recipes "are like a window to the past," telling us about the people and the ingredients they used.

Smith, 41, has turned his love for food and family into a career. For the past four years, he has been personal chef to Winfrey, and now he has written a best-selling cookbook, "Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family."

The book offers more than 150 recipes for dishes as diverse as the families and friends he hopes will renew a disappearing tradition: gathering for dinner at the table.

Revive Southern classics

His recipes range from Southern classics such as chicken and dumplings and yellow squash casserole, to ethnic creations including golden challah, Cuban paella and naan, a Pakistani flatbread.

The recipes are as accessible as buttermilk-fried chicken and as elegant as baked cod with thyme-walnut butter and baby spinach.

"Everyone loves delicious food," Smith says. "But it doesn't mean that it has to be something so complicated that you had to shop forever for it and then you cooked forever, and then by the time you're ready to serve it, you're just so tired. So, what happens is, you really lose why you're there.

"And why you're there, No. 1, is to nourish yourselves, but No. 2, you're there for your families."

Smith seems to enjoy talking and laughing as much as cooking. He talks about the comforting power of food ("When things are not so great, I think a good meal has the ability to heal") and about the women who cooked that food when he was young.

Smith's book is a plea for families to return to the dinner table. Considering today's lifestyles, he says, at least once a week would be a good goal.

"There are many things that we hold sacred," he says. "The table needs to be looked upon as one of those because, when you think about it, historically the table has always played a part in that, from biblical writings to mythology with King Arthur. The table has been that instrument that we have used to build a community."

So, instead of going to a movie, Smith suggests, "Why not just have a cup of soup together and some bread and chat?"

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