By Marni Jameson
One of the perks I miss about my old newspaper job, which I left two years ago, was sitting next to the food critic, Heather, who often invited me to test drive new restaurants.
When you cook like I do, that is not an offer you pass up.
So when Heather recently told me to check out a new restaurant for its authentic cuisine and décor –Celebrity Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming: Florida Kitchen & Southern Shine, in Lake Buena Vista’s Disney Springs — I was on it faster than you could say hushpuppies.
Being a fan of architecture that reflects place, and also a fan of good food, I set out last week to talk to Smith, a two-time winner of the James Beard Foundation award and Oprah’s personal chef for 10 years, and visit the restaurant myself.
In the process, I learned something new about taste.
To home designers, taste means one thing. To chefs, the word means something else. But when I talked to Smith, the two meanings of taste collided. Or rather, they fused like butter and flour in a good béchamel sauce.
“I see Florida, but I don’t taste it,” the chef told me was his reaction to an early set of plans for the new restaurant. “Not sandy beaches and flamingos Florida, but the Florida that has meandering rivers and lakes, shacks on waterways, Spanish moss dripping from trees, barnlike buildings, fish camps, and deep porches.”
I could picture that, all right, but wasn’t sure what that tasted like.
A sixth-generation Floridian, Smith, 56, would know. And, because you really don’t know a place until you leave it, Smith did his homework.
After leaving his small, hometown of Jaspar, Fla., Smith opened a series of restaurants: The Blue Door, in Chicago; Art and Soul, in Washington DC; Southern Art, in Atlanta; LYFE Kitchen, in Palo Alto, Calif., and 1500 South, in Naples, Fla.
Though each is distinctly different, a strong sense of place is their key ingredient. “When designing spaces for food, you have to be concerned about everything from the flavors to the flatware,” he said. “All of that needs to stem from place. The surroundings are as important as the food, and they need to cohere.”
Of all Smith’s restaurants, his aptly named Homecoming is perhaps the best example of that. Smith went back to his roots, and last year moved into an 1860 Northern Florida farmhouse. He now splits his time between there and another home in Chicago.
I went for a taste-test after we hung up. Homecoming, a fish-camp like shack, wrapped in a deep covered porch overlooking a waterway, houses large lazy ceiling fans, and tabletops made of wood sliced from local bald cypress and camphor trees. The open kitchen dishes up boat-sized portions of fried catfish, fried chicken, deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes and a many-layered hummingbird cake.
Just as I have never seen a line between home design and home life, I now see what Smith means about the merging of food and surroundings. Think of eating cookies right out of the oven, dining on fresh oysters by the sea, sipping a dry martini while overlooking downtown Chicago from a high rise. Place infuses taste.
Of course, I was dying to know what Smith’s home kitchen was like. So I asked a few more questions, and tried to glean some ways we might bring more “taste” into our home kitchens:
Marni: What’s your kitchen like at home?
Chef Smith: All gas, with a big center table for an island; old Chinese altars hold the counter up. I have heated wood floors, because I like to be barefoot in the kitchen, a collection of Le Creuset, and two giant refrigerators, because we do a lot of entertaining. (Besides Oprah, Smith has cooked for guests as diverse as the Obamas, the Royal Family, the Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, and Lady Gaga.)
Some say that when you’re entertaining, guests should not be able to see into the kitchen. Do you agree?
The kitchen is the most important part of a home. We should see into it. Kitchen and dining spaces should flow together. My kitchens are open places where people gather. I don’t want mystery food from a mystery kitchen. In restaurants where I have control, the kitchen is open to the dining room. In hotel restaurants, you don’t see into the kitchen. That is more formal, but that is not who I am.
What should every kitchen have?
- A connection to place. Home kitchens should use materials that reflect the immediate surroundings, like native trees. I like to connect to the garden, and use locally grown, if not homegrown vegetables. We use pottery and handmade woven placemats made by local artisans.
- A great table. I’m not big on tablecloths, but I do like a big, beautiful wooden table.
- A place to cook out. I like outdoor kitchens, especially for cooking smellier foods.
- Natural light. I like big giant windows to let in lots of natural light. I don’t like curtains.
- A house without animals and children is a sad house. (Smith and his husband have four adopted children ages 7, 8, 10 and 13, five cats, and three dogs.) Don’t make it so precious. So what if it gets messed up?
- Self-service. Because we wanted to teach our kids at very young age to feed themselves, we installed a deli area in the kitchen easy for small hands. It has everything they need to build a sandwich or taco. (If you can’t install a deli, devote one lower drawer in your refrigerator for healthy items kids can grab.)
- No matter how pretty things are, if the space isn’t inviting and comfortable, then it’s all just display. A great kitchen makes you want to stay where you are. That’s where everyone ends up anyway.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016).