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October 31, 2010

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KING of comfort food

It is perhaps no surprise that celebrity chef Art Smith swears by the importance of food in enriching our day-to-day lives and connecting us. But the personal chef to Oprah Winfrey for more than a decade says the simple act of sharing a meal can also help ease many of the problems besetting modern society.

"Food is love," says the chef, author and TV personality who has cooked for presidents, a king, governors and celebrities. He cooked for Oprah and her long-time partner Stedman Graham from 1997 to 2007 and frequently appears on television. His expertise is the very best of American Southern cooking.

"If more people could enjoy each other's food there would be a lot more peace and understanding in the world," says Smith.

The transformative power of a shared meal is a key theme for the chef and New York Times best-selling author, whose cookbooks have garnered him two coveted James Beard awards and whose charity work is based on teaching cooking skills, healthy eating and bringing people together.

Smith was recently in Shanghai to promote the city of Chicago where he lives and co-owns the award-winning restaurant Table Fifty-Two.

Chicago is one of America's culinary hot spots, with its vibrant restaurant scene attracting food critics and travelers. It was recently rated as the fifth best food and wine destination by Trip Advisor and it is rated as a "Top Food City" by Conde Nast Traveller (UK).

From dining tours of the trendy artists' colonies of Bucktown and Wicker Park, with their diverse range of innovative eateries, to the historic areas of Gold Coast, Old Town and Lincoln Park, the city has become a food lovers' delight.

The city's food culture is complemented by the state's surrounding wine growing areas, which have fostered more than 70 wineries and more than 450 vineyards.

Smith's Table Fifty-Two has become a landmark restaurant in the city and is popular both for its home-style Southern American comfort food as well its star-spotting possibilities. Last year President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle celebrated Valentine's Day dinner at the restaurant.

Smith dishes out awesomely fare: such as sweet potato pecan waffles; an aromatic herb-roasted chicken over root vegetables with apple cider walnut mustard glaze; and desserts that range from an elegant candied kumquat and ginger pound cake to his signature version of hummingbird cake.

At the "Go Chicago" promotion at the Grand Hyatt in Pudong last month, guests got a chance to sample some of Smith's famous food, with the chef serving an American Southern classics from traditional fried chicken to sweet potato pie.

His hummingbird cake recipe was featured on Oprah and is popular at his restaurant in Chicago and at his Art and Soul eatery in Washington, DC.

"While I am fascinated by exploring the world's different food cultures, in my own cooking I stick to what I know," says the native of Jasper, Florida, who grew up on a farm.

Shortly after graduating from cooking college, Smith got his first break as a personal chef when he became the executive chef for then Florida Governor Bob Graham.

He went on to flourish in the kitchen of the governor's mansion, also cooking for Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the younger brother of former President George W. Bush.

But in 1997, he got the call asking if he was available to cook for Oprah.

"When you get a call like that you drop everything and I got on a plane and cooked for her every day for three months - it was a long audition," he says.

Having cooked for everyone from music stars like Diana Ross and rapper JZ to heads of state and government like Nelson Mandela and the King of Sweden, Smith says that fame and fortune don't change the desire for life's simple pleasures.

Even though many of his clients are celebrities and famous figures, they still want comfort food, food that reminds them of home and family, Smith says.

The power of food to bring comfort and solace was never more apparent to Smith than during his visit to New York City to serve a special meal to ordinary people caught up in the turmoil of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He brought smiles to the faces of exhausted rescue workers as he handed out cookies, and he prepared a special meal for a woman and her three school-age children whose father had been killed in the 9/11 attacks.

Their pleasure and comfort inspired him to look to food as a way to effect social change.

Seven years ago, he started "Common Threads," a nonprofit group that teaches children around Chicago from low-income families how to prepare and cook healthy meals.

More than 1,000 school children a year are involved in the program in which chefs to teach children about nutrition and the importance of physical activity.

The project also teaches tolerance and cultural understanding through activities in which children prepare a wide range of cuisines, talk about them and share them.

"When the children make meals together, they not only gain basic cooking skills, which is a vital life skill, but they also can share what they have learned with family and friends," Smith says.

He and plenty of experts say there's a link between good eating habits and education outcomes for children, noting that children with poor nutrition are more likely to experience behavioral and attention problems.

Despite being poorly nourished, children who eat poorly are also more likely to be obese than those who eat a healthy diet.

"The problems of obesity and under-nutrition are linked and have the biggest impact on low-income and minority children and their families," he says.

Common Threads gives children something Smith had while growing up on a farm in the north Florida country town of Jasper - the experience of selecting and preparing fresh, wholesome food.

The nutrition message has been heard at the highest levels in the United States, with First Lady Michelle Obama launching a national-wide program to improve the eating habits and physical activity of school children.

Smith was one of the chefs invited to the launch in June on the lawn of the White House.

Smith himself, who already knew about the power of food, recently came to appreciate first hand the power and necessity of physical exercise and healthy living - including a low-fat diet.

Before his 50th birthday he was diagnosed with diabetes, which shocked him although there was diabetes in his family.

He lost more than 39 kilograms by overhauling his diet and developing an exercise regime. He has also developed healthy recipes and written a cookbook for diabetics and others who want to stay healthy.

Today he is an ardent runner and during his stay in Shanghai Smith was pounding the pavements early in morning. He says he loves running around a new city because it's a great way not only to stay fit but also to see a city's food culture first hand.

He was fascinated by Shanghai eating, asking about everything from the breakfast street food people lined up for to the standards of top chefs in high-end fine dining restaurants.

Smith attributes his curiosity and love of cooking to the women in his family, whom he calls his "steel magnolias."

Saying he was a bit of a "momma's boy" who liked singing, performing and cooking - while other boys were outside driving tractors - Smith gives credit to the women in his family for nurturing his potential.

"The women in my family were amazing women and full of love, which was often expressed through the wonderful food they cooked," he says.

He is now able to encourage children to reach their own goals and dreams through his cooking programs, and Smith says it reaffirms his belief in the power of food to build bridges between people.

"There is something magical about tasting new, fresh foods along with a satisfaction and confidence that comes from preparing your own meals," he says.

"This is something I experienced as a child and after all these years in the kitchen I still find it rewarding."


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