Chef Art Smith Talks High-Brow and Low-Brow Southern Eats
Art Smith is an international ambassador for fried chicken. Or, as he puts it, he might make the “most well-traveled fried chicken in the world.” The born-and-raised Southerner has fried drumsticks across the globe at high-profile events like the opening of Oprah’s South African school. (That gig was no stroke of luck—before opening his Chicago restaurant, Table Fifty-Two, Smith was Oprah’s personal chef.)
And Smith is about to take his fryer to yet another country: Italy. He’s running a two-day pop-up restaurant at the Milan World’s Fair.
Below are highlights from our chat about Southern cooking with the two-time James Beard Award winner.
The Dos and Don’ts of Fried Chicken
- Don’t fry at a sky-high temperature. “You don’t fry at as high a heat as you think,” Smith said. “We fry ours starting about 275 [degrees Fahrenheit], and then we raise it. Many people will fry it at 400, and it burns and it’s not cooked all the way.”
- Do use high-quality flour. Smith covers his chicken with “all-purpose Southern flour,” for maximum Southern effect.
- Do work with great chicken. Table Fifty-Two’s meat is free-range.
The Official Art Smith Stance on Waffle House
Pro. He especially appreciates how much the Southern chain has perfected its namesake food. “I love the simplest [waffles] that they make.”
Overall, “they’re very affordable, and they’re open all different times,” Smith said. "It’s interesting—there’s not even a fryer in those places. It’s just basically a grill and a waffle iron.”
The Southern Dish the South Deserves More Credit For
Layer cake. “I’m not 100% confident, but I believe the idea of the layer cake, multi-layers of cake, is a Southern [one]."
The Top Four Signs You’re Eating Southern Food
- It’s a stew or at least stew-like. “Much of it, in terms of the savory part, tends to be simmered,” Smith said. That means a lot of stews and a lot of dishes with sauce or gravy.
- It involves fried chicken. Of course.
- There’s bread on the table. “Southerners always have some kind of bread, and it’s always fresh or homemade—whether it’s cornbread, whether it’s biscuits, or whether it’s a Parker House roll.”
- It comes with sides. Green sides. “It’s common in Southern food to have a lot of side dishes of vegetable,” Smith said. Think collard greens.
A Quick Story on How Smith Converted a Nobel Laureate to Southern Cooking
The laureate would be Dr. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan professor, environmental activist, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. “Her whole mission was to plant trees,” Smith recalled; she hoped to help restore Kenya’s ecosystems. A starstruck Smith made brunch for her and Oprah, back when he was Oprah’s chef.
Southern brunch always has a sweet dish, so he made a fresh berry cobbler—a dish Maathai had never tried before. “I said, ‘Professor, where I’m from, we always have dessert for breakfast.’ She says, ‘Well, I want to go there.’ So that was charming, and I still remember that.”
Art Smith photo by Eric Kleinberg, courtesy of Table Fifty-Two
Mae Rice is a staff writer who writes about eyelash extensions, French food, what "business casual" even means, and other style and food topics.