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It was perhaps always Art Smith’s destiny to be a chef. Growing up in the small town of Jasper, Fla., he was raised in a family that came from a long line of farmers. “Our family has historically always eaten out of a garden,” Smith tells SUCCESS. “That was life—shelling peas, shucking corn. We were always celebrating food in some way.”
Smith especially remembers the early influence of his nanny, Lela Curry, who cared for him and his brother while his parents balanced multiple jobs to make ends meet. Curry brought the influences of African-American and Southern cooking into the home and, “most of our childhood, it seems, was spent on the front porch preparing vegetables from the garden while our parents worked,” he recalls.
The importance of a family meal would influence Smith later in life to form his nonprofit group, Common Threads, an organization that teaches global cooking techniques to at-risk kids. The young participants in Common Threads take their newfound skills and appreciation for nutritious, fresh food home to their families, improving their self-esteem and strengthening family bonds. Each year, Common Threads reaches 1,000 kids ages 8 to 12.
Smith developed an early love of fresh, homegrown food, as well as a surprisingly diverse palate for a child. “I credit my mother with developing my taste for food,” says the celebrity chef, author and restaurateur who spent a decade cooking for Oprah Winfrey. “My mother would always place some new food on my tongue and say, ‘Honey, try this. I know you’re going to like it.’ ”
“My mother taught me to explore and not to be afraid of something different,” Smith says. That spirit of exploration and understanding has followed him through his entire career, which took him all over the world, until he ultimately settled down in Chicago, home of his restaurant, Table Fifty-Two. And his appreciation of diversity led him to the idea for Common Threads, which he founded in 2003 as a result of the impact the Sept. 11 attacks had on him.
At the time of the tragedy, Smith was Winfrey’s personal chef. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Winfrey asked him to accompany her to New York City to cook for a victim’s family and to see Ground Zero. “It was an experience I’ll never forget,” Smith says, remembering how, at the time, he wished he could cook for all the victims’ families and offer them solace and connectedness through food. “The expressions on the faces of the rescue workers were so tragic,” he remembers, “but when I brought them homemade cookies, they smiled and thanked me.”
The visit to New York City was life-changing for Smith. “That was about the time I started writing Back to The Table, which looks at how the table is a sacred place,” Smith explains. When he wrote the cookbook, he was concerned with the idea of bringing people back to the table to connect with one another over food. The book, which combines Smith’s recipes with stories about his family and their food traditions, is a New York Times best-seller that helped Smith and his life partner, Jesus Salgueiro, brainstorm the idea for promoting cultural understanding through food.
“I felt compelled after seeing Ground Zero to do something,” he says. Smith, Salgueiro, and Linda Novick, who is now executive director of Common Threads, came up with the idea of teaching cooking to at-risk kids in Chicago, not only to help encourage nutritious eating from a young age, but to promote cultural understanding by exposing kids to foods from around the globe.
“We started with $20,000 and a borrowed church basement kitchen,” Smith says. He initially taught the cooking classes himself and then asked other chef friends to assist. Through the help of celebrity chef fundraiser events and Smith’s networking efforts, the program has grown substantially over the last six years. Common Threads, supported by funding from the Annenberg Foundation, now operates in several locations in four cities, with 17 after-school programs in Chicago, two in Los Angeles, two in Miaimi and one in Washington, D.C.
With after-school sessions once a week for 12 weeks, Common Threads serves mostly students on free and reduced-cost lunch programs, meaning it reaches those youngsters most in need of guidance for leading healthier lives free of childhood and adult obesity. “We teach a cooking class where kids actually participate and then eat a meal together,” Smith says. “They not only learn how to eat better, but how to love better. Food is the most beautiful way to connect people.”
Chef instructors teach all the classes, which are held at various sites, from community centers to Whole Foods kitchens. Each lesson the students receive is focused on a different area of the world. The chef instructor first provides kids a lesson in the regional ingredients and then introduces them to that culture through cooking some of its foods. At the end of the class, all the children sit down and eat the meal they’ve prepared together.
Common Threads officials say the program has definitely had an impact on the youngsters’ eating habits. An evaluation conducted recently by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois in Chicago showed that 94 percent of Common Threads participants now make healthier lunch choices and 60 percent have started helping their parents with grocery shopping. More than 90 percent of the kids also show an interest in eating foods from other countries.
Smith says he’s been delighted with how quickly Common Threads has grown. “These kids don’t have the same opportunities I had,” he says. “I’ve learned in this life to share what you have, and I have a tremendous love for children.” Smith says his interest in young people’s perceptions of diversity and health grew after he went with Winfrey to visit her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. “Going to Africa really instilled in me the idea that we are all one, and that when we do things, we do it for the whole, not the one.”
Common Threads has also taught Smith the importance of humility and of surrounding himself with wise and strong people. “I’ve tried hard to bring people into my life who are better and smarter than I am,” he says with a chuckle, noting that Common Threads’ success is due to its executive leadership and the efforts of its board more than to him personally.
He also credits a lot of the acquaintances he has made over the course of his life with helping him get to where he is today, from former U.S. senator and governor of Florida Bob Graham, who he served as personal chef for while still a young man, to Oprah Winfrey. “One of the great things about Oprah is that when she likes you, she introduces you to everyone,” he says. It was through Winfrey that Smith had the opportunity to cook for Nelson Mandela and for President Barack Obama. And, today, Smith’s D.C. restaurant, Art and Soul, is one of the most popular lunch venues for politicos from the Hill.