Art Smith — the charming celebrity chef who once officiated 101 gay weddings for free in Miami in celebration of the lifting of Florida’s gay marriage ban — has big plans for Jasper, Florida, the poor, rural town where he grew up.
Smith, who has previously worked for Oprah Winfrey and former Florida governors Bob Graham and Jeb Bush, moved back to Jasper from Chicago just last summer, along with his husband and four children. Despite the fact that Jasper is a conservative Christian town and Smith is an out gay man, the chef is well-loved at home. “They just accept Art for Art,” a town commissioner in nearby Madison, Florida, told the New York Times.
With the help of a few key financial backers, Smith has big plans to recharge the local economy. Those plans include a commercial bakery that will supply his upcoming restaurant at Disney World, three hours away, called Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine; an organic produce store; another restaurant; and a school for agriculture, cooking, and meteorology.
“We’re going to make it look like a Cracker Barrel with better food, honey,” Smith told the Times of the culinary complex.
A 60,000 square-foot complex will be home to the restaurant and produce store, plus a farm and catfish ponds on the 38 acres surrounding the building. This fall, Smith will open the Reunion Florida Garden and Kitchen School inside a mansion he purchased for $450,000.
After years of working with celebrity clients, opening a number of Southern-inspired restaurants, and becoming a celebrity himself, Smith is ready to focus his seemingly boundless energy on a place that truly needs it. Jasper, one of Florida’s most impoverished towns, could seriously stand to benefit from the return of one of its own.
“My mission is to use the business to fund the good stuff I want to do,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, do I want to be known for some award-winning restaurant or that I turned a town around and helped make it sustainable? That’s better than any damn Beard Award.”