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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-02-22



Chef Art Smith talks upcoming dinner and activism
by Andrew Davis

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More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, including more than 230,000 Illinoisans. Additionally, more than 11 million family members and friends serve as dementia caregivers, with more than 383,000 caregivers in Illinois.

Until recently, one of those caregivers was Chef Art Smith. The culinary icon—who has served people such as Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga and the Obamas—moved to Florida from Chicago a few years ago to assist his mother, who was battling the disease. Unfortunately, it was a battle she ultimately lost but she's not the only one of Smith's relatives to succumb to Alzheimer's, as his grandmother and great-aunt lost their battles as well.

On Thursday, June 1, at his newest Chicago spot, Reunion, Smith will host a special four-course dinner that will feature dishes that pay homage to these women who were important figures in his life.

Windy City Times: Reunion opened not too long ago. How many other spots do you have and does it ever become old-hat to open a new one?

Chef Art Smith: Well, we have Chef Art Smith's Homecomin' at Disney [in Lake Buena Vista, Florida] and then we have one at Orlando International Airport. Then I'm attached to [Chicago restaurants] Blue Door and Chicago q.

With the one in Orlando, it's licensed. You just have to keep on top of them and make sure the quality's right. The Disney one has been around eight years and is doing incredible—42 tons of fried chicken last year. But, yeah, you do [get a little nervous]; we want them to perform.

We opened last summer so we're hoping for a huge summer this year, and it's looking that way. But a great team doesn't necessarily come when [a place] opens; it comes collectively. People come to this tourist attraction [Navy Pier] from all over. Some people may want to eat at America's Dog or McDonald's, but for a sit-down experience they come to us. Here, there are mostly families—not a lot of singles. We get a lot of singles or [couples] from the neighborhood.

WCT: Regarding the June 1 dinner, could you tell the readers why it's so special to you?

Smith: I've had three family members pass away from Alzheimer's—my great-aunt, grandmother and mother.

They refer to {the disease] as "the long goodbye." There are cases where people are diagnosed with it and don't last very long, and there are people who live with it for many years—and there are moments when they're with you and when they're not. Great things are coming around, though.

Six million Americans are living with it. If you have the means, you have a caregiver but a lot don't so they have their families. It's like when [Smith's husband] Jesus went for his illness; I was with him through it. God forbid that people have to go through it alone.

WCT: And what's the Around the Table program, which you support?

Smith: The Alzheimer's Association has been working and hosting intimate four-course dinners around the city. It's just a way to get people engaged. We just had a very successful production of The Notebook—and the main character in the book has memory loss, and her lover tries to make her remember through letters. And it's becoming more public, like what's happening with poor Bruce [Willis]. When he got sick, no one wanted to say what it was.

I feel like with Alzheimer's, like with HIV/AIDS, some people feel it's a death sentence. But these dinners act as delicious ways to engage with people and make them aware.

I'm very fortunate. I can keep my loved ones in my thoughts but also through food. Food is a time capsule—and it allows you to have amazing moments.

I took my mother all over the world but, in the end, she couldn't remember anywhere she had been. She did remember my name, though. She was a great mother. My grandmother was the first in the family to have a hospitality business; she ran a boarding house. I always loved her name: Georgia Smith.

And my great-aunt, Millicent, was incredible; she was one of the first weatherwomen on television. One night, she ended up going on television in her frock—and this was in the '50s, so tongues were wagging. They got such a huge response, they asked her, "Could you continue to be glamorous when you give the weather?"

WCT: I've also been asking people about activism. How do you feel a chef can be an activist?

Smith: For me, it's not about making noise; it's about being present and supportive. It's no news that I'm a gay American dad, Jesus is from Venezuela and [we] have four adopted children—and I'm very public about my life.

To be honest with you, with what's happening in my home state [Florida] and with my partners at Disney, things become more difficult. I come from northern Florida, which is pretty red but they're loving people. It's not like I won't like you because you're a certain way; people have a choice. I don't like it when people use gender [and sexuality] as political weapons—but I don't know what screaming about that does. When we were [advocating for] marriage equality, I commented about some people and got some traction from them.

One of the things we're going to do is host something called "Rainbow Thursdays." What's happening now is like what happened in the '60s and '70s, when people of color came to the North to escape discrimination and all these other horrors from the South. And look at how San Francisco became an oasis for the LGBTQ+ community; you also have Palm Springs, West Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. I just heard that in Wilton Manors, you can wear drag but not perform in it. I was just, like, "Ugh!"—that's one of the strongest gay communities in Florida.

So, I don't know. The only thing we can do is get more people on our side. Illinois' governor as well as Chicago's former and current mayor are working hard to do that. I'm very concerned about the elections and how they impact us. Will Illinois, Colorado, California and New York just become oases for the LGBTQ+ community? I'll be honest with you: When the NAACP put that [advisory] out and [Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis] said it was just a way for them to get their name out there, I said, "You're such an idiot." It's all embarrassing.

I think of the writer Zora Neale Hurston, who's from Florida. I wonder how she and others would feel about what's going on. As far as we've come, we haven't come as far as we think. Still, I wonder about the screaming but I do my best.

WCT: I understand people who flee toward these oases, but I also understand those who stay and fight.

Smith: Right. The whole thing is interesting.

Did you hear what [MSNBC's] Joe Scarborough said? He's from Florida and he said, "Does the man have a gay friend? Does he have gay employees in his cabinet or in his offices? Aren't there gay Republicans? I know lots of gay Republicans. What about South Carolina?" [Laughs]

I think humor is an incredible way to get back at them, too. Look at Saturday Night Live and comedians like Chris Rock. When he finally opened his mouth, oh my God! Maybe that's the answer.

I think the situation with Disney could go on for some time, though—maybe until elections. I still worry about it.

The Alzheimer's Benefit Dinner with Chef Art Smith will take place at the Navy Pier restaurant Reunion on Thursday, June 1 (the first day of Alzheimer's & Brain Awareness Month), 6:30-9 p.m. The menu will include deviled eggs; Chef Art's Famous Fried Chicken as well as salmon with seasonal vegetables; a side of macaroni and cheese; and hummingbird cupcakes.

Tickets are $100 each and are available here: .

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