JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chef Art Smith greets culinary students from Kapiolani Community College at Macy's. The students helped him prepare for a cooking demonstration. CLICK FOR LARGE
Bringing families to the table
» Nuts and cheese coat crispy chicken
HIS FIRST cookbook was called "Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family." The second: "Kitchen Life: Real Food for Real Families." This year's book is "Back to the Family: Food Tastes Better Shared with Ones You Love."
An obvious theme runs through the food and philosophy of chef Art Smith, although his concept of family runs far from the traditional mom-dad-kids-dog.
"Family," he says with finality, "is whoever you choose to have in your life."
His father worked three jobs to keep from losing the family farm in Jasper, Fla.; his mother worked two, so he and his brother were raised by a nanny whom he considers his second mom.
That's not to say he lost out on any sense of connection. He remembers how his grandfather would pull a potato right out of the ground and give it to him for a fresh bite. How his great-grandmother's 12-layer chocolate cake was a sign -- no matter how desperate the times -- that everything was all right. "No telling what was going on in the world, that cake always showed up," he says. "What that showed to her loved ones was, 'It's OK here.' "
Food. Family. It's become his mantra even as he lives the whirlwind life of a celebrity chef who caters to celebrities.
Smith flew into Honolulu Thursday afternoon, held a cooking demonstration at Macy's Ala Moana on Friday, cooked for Saturday's "Chefs du Jour" benefit for Easter Seals on Saturday night, then jumped on a plane right afterward.
Oh, and the week before he got here? He opened a restaurant, Table 52 in Chicago.
"When you work with Oprah, you learn how to build an infrastructure," Smith says, giving a nod to television diva Oprah Winfrey. He is her chief party planner, appears on her show and contributes to her magazine (O) and Web site (oprah.com).
He's appointed a chef to run his restaurant and travels with assistant John Anthony Sinclair, who keeps him on track.
Smith's invitation to Honolulu came by way of an old friend, chef Alan Wong. The two were interns together at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia 30 years ago. Wong says they stayed in the same dormitory, and he remembers winding down after work together with other interns, sharing a six-pack.
Smith's work with children made him a good fit for the Easter Seals event, Wong adds, not to mention his disarming, never-stop-talking personality. Smith was in the midst of his Macy's presentation as Wong spoke, waxing eloquent about his first taste of Hawaiian food: "I just love kalua pork! I was beside myself!"
Back home in Chicago, Smith's family is his life partner of 10 years, Jesus Salgueiro, "three dogs, five cats and 15 fish."
And by extension the 800 underprivileged children learning cooking basics through an after-school program Smith founded, Common Threads. In 12 locations, mostly in Chicago, children ages 8 to 12 take weekly classes that cover fitness, nutrition and cooking. A summer camp introduces them to planting and harvesting.
His aim, Smith says, is to give kids a connection to the land and an appreciation for real food, not processed. "You can't expect a kid to know what fresh is if they're never tasted it."
Food, he adds, is a connection to so much else. "It's planning for the future and for life."
Food. Family. Kids. It certainly works for Smith. "Back to the Table" won a James Beard Award in 2002, "Kitchen Life" won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2004. This year, the Beard Foundation recognized his work with Common Threads, naming him Humanitarian of the Year.
Which is all nice, but back to the kitchen. What does he especially like to cook? "I do a mean shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes. I also serve the 12-layer cake."
Nuts and cheese coat crispy chicken
Art Smith developed this recipe for one of Oprah Winfrey's guests, and included it in his latest cookbook, "Back to the Family: Food Tastes Better Shared with Ones You Love" (Thomas Nelson, 2007, hardcover, $29.99).
Smith says the brine and the sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated. He also suggested replacing the pistachios with macadamia nuts for local flavor. His one caveat: Do NOT use canned Parmesan, which he says may as well be sawdust.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 quart buttermilk
1 pound salted pistachios, shelled and toasted
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup EACH chopped fresh thyme, rosemary and parsley
2 cups all purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup kosher salt
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
5 cloves garlic
2 cups cold water
Grapeseed oil to taste
» Coconut-Chili-Ginger Sauce:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 shallots, minced
2 blades lemongrass, chopped
3 (1/2-inch) pieces fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 cup Riesling or other sweet wine
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
2 tablespoons Chinese black bean chili sauce
1 (8 ounce) can coconut milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
To make brine: Combine ingredients in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Place brine in non-reactive pot or plastic container. Submerge chicken breasts in cold water and weigh down with a plate. Add brine. Let the chicken sit in brine at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
To make sauce: Combine tablespoon butter, shallots, lemongrass, ginger slices and wine in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Simmer until reduced by half.
Add broth, red curry paste and Chinese black bean chili sauce and reduce by half again.
Add coconut milk and reduce by half a third time.
Remove from heat and whisk in bits of butter until all the butter has been incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. (If you reheat the sauce, do not allow it to boil or the butter will separate.)
To prepare chicken: Remove from brine and cut in half. Use a meat mallet to pound chicken 1/4-inch thick. Place in nonreactive bowl. Pour buttermilk over chicken, cover and let sit at least 1 hour in refrigerator.
In a food processor, combine pistachios, Parmesan cheese and herbs, working in batches if necessary. Pulse 5 or 6 times until mixture is finely chopped. Transfer to bowl.
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Place flour in another bowl and season with salt and pepper. Preheat a large nonstick sauté pan over medium-low heat with a thin coating of oil.
Remove 1 breast, shake off excess buttermilk, and dust breast with flour on each side. Dip 1 side of chicken back in buttermilk and press pistachios onto that side. Repeat with all of the chicken.
Place chicken in sauté pan, pistachio-side down, and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and cook other side 2 to 3 minutes. Place in oven 8 to 10 minutes to finish cooking. Remove, let rest 5 minutes, and slice. Serve with sauce. Serves 8.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including salt to taste): 720 calories, 38 g total fat, 18 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, greater than 3,000 mg sodium, 47 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 14 g sugar, 45 g protein.