Most Valuable Motivator Art Smith, the chef whom Oprah still has on speed-dial, dishes on how a diabetes diagnosis changed his diet—but not his passion for food.
Claim to fame: Art Smith was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef for 10 years, from 1997-2007, and still cooks for many of her special events. He owns four restaurants across the country, including Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two and Washington, D.C.’s Art and Soul. He appeared on the first season of Top Chef Masters, where he was a fan favorite, and returned for season four. He has also appeared on Top Chef, Iron Chef America, BBQ Pitmasters, The Dr. Oz Show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and A Very Lady Gaga Thanksgiving, and has appeared as a guest numerous times on news and morning TV programs. The chef is the author of four cookbooks: Kitchen Life, Back to the Kitchen, Back to the Family and the recently released Art Smith’s Healthy Comfort: How America’s Favorite Celebrity Chef Got It Together, Lost Weight and Reclaimed His Health.
Healthy cooking philosophy: “Keep it simple.” As the chef says, “I believe in simplistic food that is authentic, with everything in its whole state. I want the people I feed to be around for a long time.”
Favorite healthy meal: Turkey chili. “It’s easy and it tastes great. It’s the same recipe I’ve made for Oprah and President Obama. I love a one-pot wonder.”
Favorite splurge: Pizza. “But it’s a treat and I view it as a treat.”
Favorite workout: Boxing, jogging and walking
Favorite healthy snacks: Apples, bananas, almonds. “My go-to snack all the time is fruit. But the best thing to do when you feel you’re hungry is drink a glass of water.”
Secret weapon: “If it’s not homemade, I don’t eat it—it’s not worth the calories.”
Five Minutes With Art Smith
In 2008, Chef Art Smith was at the top of his game—having grown from Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef to an in-demand TV personality in his own right. But in the midst of a successful career, he faced a scary diagnosis: Type 2 diabetes. At 325 pounds, he finally had to confront the fact that his weight was putting his health at risk.
Now a spokesman for Merck’s Taking Diabetes to Heart campaign, Smith is speaking out about how he lost 120 pounds and has kept his diabetes under control—all without sacrificing his love of good food.
Spry: How did you feel when you were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes?
Art Smith: It wasn’t really a surprise because I have it in my family, and have lost family members. I understood what it could do and how this disease could affect you. When my doctor said, “You have to lose weight,” after the diagnosis, I looked at it as a challenge. He said, “Just lose 20 pounds,” and I said, “It’s my 50th birthday—let’s lose 50!” So we worked on a plan together. And by losing weight with my doctor, I’ve been able to keep it at a place that I’m not at risk. I still have to be careful and manage my diabetes.
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Spry: What habits were hardest to break?
AS: Before, I would not sleep a lot, and when I ate, I ate very late. And I’d eat 3, 4, 5 peanut butter sandwiches at 11 or 12 at night. I was drinking diet soda by the case. And I wasn’t eating breakfast. Now I always start the day with oatmeal. If there’s one meal you can’t skip, that’s breakfast.
Spry: What are the major modifications you’ve made to your diet to make it more diabetes-friendly?
AS: I only use extra virgin olive oil—I don’t cook with butter. I only use butter for baking, and that’s only for special occasions. I don’t drink or use any kind of artificial sweeteners at all. I eat a tremendous amount of Greek yogurt. I just try to eat things very whole, like skinless, boneless chicken. I do eat red meat, but not a lot of it. When I go to restaurants, I try to fill up on salads.
Spry: How do you recommend diners approach asking for modifications or healthier options at restaurants?
AS: After I was diagnosed with diabetes, I started requesting that my restaurants be more respectful of customers’ dietary needs. Then it became more of a mission statement for me, and we started incorporating it into the menus. I think it’s called conscious consuming: Don’t spend your money if they won’t do what you want. Any chef worth his salt these days is going to be focusing on health—we live in a time of reckoning. Type 2 diabetes is something that will challenge our world for quite some time. People want a choice, and they want to know what’s in their food. We have to be transparent about it.
Spry: How have you maintained your weight loss? Has it been a challenge?
AS: I lost 120 pounds in a 3-month period, and I have kept off over 50 percent of it. It has a lot to do with the weather. The weather in Chicago can be cold. The summer is when I lean down and get thinner. I might start spending my winters in Florida so I can look after my mother, and the winters are milder there so I could do more.
But it’s a constant goal. I try to keep extremely active. We had this long train ride from NY a few days ago, and when we got off the train, everyone jumped in the car to go to the hotel, but I walked.
Spry: Your cookbook also includes a lot of personal information about your weight struggles. Why did you want to share that?
AS: I started cooking because I was bullied, and when you cook for people, they love you. The book has a fairly detailed story about what I went through in my career—I felt like if I lost the weight I’d lose the funny. My weight played an important part in my success. I think what I hope the reader will do is read the book and be inspired and see that they themselves can lead a healthier life. I was always taught by Oprah that the effect we have is far greater than we realize.
Spry: What was it like to cook for Oprah?
AS: Working with Oprah, I met every possible health specialist. She herself has come to believe that fresh is the best approach to living a healthier life. I love Miss Winfrey. What I love most about her is that even if she herself felt like she needed to watch her weight, her guests still needed to eat well. She loved fish so I’d always do different kinds of fish dishes.
Spry: What’s your best advice for someone struggling with weight?
AS: I know how they’re feeling. I’ve felt it, too. You have to find the happy. You have to look for the happy—whether it’s music or hanging out with friends. It’s not something that is just going to happen. It’s something that you have to purposefully work toward.