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Famous Chef Counting on Food to Fuel Small-Town Rebirths


A well-known celebrity chef is on a mission to help restore America’s economically stressed small towns. He is launching this effort in his native North Florida this Sunday (4/8).

Art Smith has long had what you might call a love/hate relationship with big cities.

“Not everybody grew up in a New York City or Miami or Atlanta or L.A. I love all those places. But a lot of great people came from rural communities,” he pointed out.

Smith himself is among those folks who came from a rural community, specifically, Jasper. It’s a tiny town in Northeast Florida a stone’s throw from the Georgia line. Smith, like so many other ambitious and talented young people, soon escaped. His culinary skills took him to bigger towns. He cooked for Florida Governors Bob Graham and Jeb Bush. He was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef. His unique take on southern cooking made him a star. But Smith found himself missing the undeniable charms of the kind of place that had given him birth, especially because so many small towns are in economic trouble.

“That’s the reason that I chose to come back because I felt that I could help and be a lightning rod to get those type of industries back into the community. I have restaurants all over the country and I hope one day to have one here, too,” he explained, noting that “here” for Smith is now Madison, Florida, a mere 30 miles from his hometown of Jasper.

Madison is where Smith is partnering with friends like Chef John Minos, the original executive chef from Tallahassee’s Edison Restaurant, along with Christian Schmoe of Schmoe Family Farms and Peter Stein have formed a group called “Reunion.” Smith said it has one primary mission.

“In rural communities the assumption is that people eat well, but they don’t and so it’s important that we focus on that as well as sustainable economics.” Smith stressed that’s the purpose of this Sunday’s “Reunion Farmer’s Market.”

“What I love about the Farmer’s Market is not just that you find interesting things, it’s just the fact that you get to meet the source of your food, so it will be great to have people locally that will be bringing in their food for the community to eat.”

That, he said, plus a lot of terrific information, including a master class with one of America’s top chefs. “It’s a conversation about the raising of livestock with Christian Schmoe and then there’s my cooking classes. There are going to be farmers coming.”

Smith will be teaching his own world-renowned take on Southern fried chicken, by the way. The Reunion Farmers’ Market takes place this Sunday, April 8th from 2:00 until 5:00 p.m. at the Historic Wardlaw Smith-Goza Mansion on the northwest corner of Highway 90 and Washington Street in downtown Madison.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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