Celebrity Chef Art Smith Lands in Naples
Dining (macaroni ‘n’ mascarpone) and talking with Oprah's former chef as he opens a new restaurant in Naples
As I was saying good night and thanking Charles Arthur “Art” Smith for a night of soulful food and many laughs mixed with meaningful, introspective moments, he gave me a bear hug then grabbed my wrist. “Honey, no—thank you.”
He was just the Florida-Georgia peach I remembered. Born and raised in agrarian Jasper, 8 miles from the states’ border, he’s actually a sixth-generation Floridian who runs his grandmother’s historic farm and has recently begun to call the town “home” again after more than two decades in Chicago.
Our paths crossed when I was an editor for O, The Oprah Magazine from 2005 to 2010—he was Oprah’s personal chef for 10 years until 2007. During that time, he had carved a niche for himself as a cookbook author, winning two James Beard Awards (the epicurean equivalent of Oscars) before segueing into restaurants. I, like the rest of the food-obsessed nation, was also captivated by his gregarious and gracious turn on the premiere season of Top Chef Masters in 2009, on which he won $10,000 and well-deserved attention for the healthy-eating children’s charity he had started, Common Threads.
Now he is a hot-ticket restaurateur and philanthropist, and there has been no holding him back. It was why we were gathered—for him to introduce me to his newest upscale-casual Southern eatery, 1500 South by Chef Art Smith at the Naples Bay Resort. It’s his first in his home state and his first with an Italian twist (a nod to his “chef-diplomat” mission at last year’s World’s Fair, Expo Milan). It joins his other acclaimed spots in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta. It will soon be followed by Homecoming at the Walt Disney World Resort and the just-announced Florida Garden and Kitchen School in Jasper. He still keeps illustrious company, cooking at times for Oprah, the Obamas, Jeb Bush, Lady Gaga, and last year whipping up an over-the-top after-party for Sofia Vergara’s wedding. He still also writes cookbooks, and he plans to spend quite a bit of time in Naples now that he’s invested here.
In his words, he’s “a big supporter of fresh,” already relying on the local organic Oakes Farms. It’s an appreciation he feels you’re born with. The restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Dagan Stocks, who will man the kitchen on a daily basis, also grew up with a farming background (and later refined his palate at Johnson & Wales and the St. Regis Bal Harbour). “When you’re little itty bitty, those first things you have as a child play an important role in how you eat,” Smith says.
The idea behind this restaurant was born out of Smith’s involvement with the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership between the State Department and the James Beard Foundation. As someone who believes the world’s problems can be solved with fried chicken, he has been active in the chef corps since it started in 2012, traveling to Israel, Palestine, the Baltics and soon Cuba—and he was asked to create a pop-up for the United States’ pavilion at Expo Milan serving his Southern staples using Italian ingredients. It went so well, he thought to combine the two here in what he considers America’s Riviera. That fried chicken figures prominently, and it’s just about the crispiest, juiciest piece of bird I’ve had. All of his restaurants serve a variation of it, and Smith confirmed my hunch that rosemary played a role in this one (it starts in the brine).
An Italianized mac and cheese (with slightly sweet mascarpone) is a highlight; so, too, is a Southernized gnudi (used as dumplings in chicken and dumplings).
Smith also relishes the chance to speak about his way of serving the ubiquitous Gulf catch, grouper. With an encyclopedic knowledge of food history, he cites how peanuts cooked with collards were a staple of the Old South, a tradition rooted in Central Africa. “This is where Dagan and I come together beautifully,” he says, reflecting on the dish that also has a kick from merguez sausage and harissa. “Dagan showed up with it to the tasting, and I knew we were on the same wavelength.”
Although Smith’s choice of Naples for his next restaurant was somewhat a matter of coincidence—longtime friend Fred Pezeshkan had his sights on getting Smith to collaborate with him as he set out to remake the Naples Bay Resort—Smith’s history with Naples goes back to 2001 when he was approached by then-governor Jeb Bush to participate in a fundraiser he was starting in Southwest Florida. Bush knew him because, before his Oprah days, Smith had been the chef in the governor’s mansion, and he kept in touch with those circles in Tallahassee.
At that first Celebration of Reading, which has become one of our largest annual events (raising $25 million and counting), Smith spoke about his James Beard-winning book, and he cooked at a private dinner where he met Pezeshkan. He has kept coming back, and he believes everything happened for
“I was running today over the Gordon River, and I saw pelicans on the roof of a building. As I was squinting to see if they were real, I noticed a dolphin jumping out of the water beneath me. It feels right. This feels right. I really believe that,” he says. “When Dagan put the peanuts with the fish, that felt right. I know I’m supposed to be here.”
Smith’s casually elegant ode to the Southern food through a Neapolitan lens couldn’t have debuted at a more opportune time, as Naples residents, snowbirds and restaurateurs are yearning to cement our spot on the national culinary map. After strides in recent years, this is the biggest milestone yet.
Even though Smith is busy, and he’s got his people keeping the trains running smoothly, he still intends to be around pretty often as the project takes off. “It’s my hope that this beautiful place that’s a slice of the Italian Riviera—somehow or other we can bring a little taste of Italy and also give it a bit of soul and comfort of the South,” he says.
1500 South by Chef Art Smith: 1500 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 239-530-5105, 1500southnaples.com