A Model of Perfection in Her Restaurants, or Entertaining at Home, Barbara Smith Has the Touch

By Nicole Gaouette, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Model of Perfection in Her Restaurants, or Entertaining at Home, Barbara Smith Has the Touch


Nicole Gaouette, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Most restaurants would come to a brief stop when Barbara Smith walked in. At the restaurant that bears her name, the sun-filled, bustling space keeps humming right along. And Ms. Smith, with equal parts warmth, charm, and pure professionalism, wouldn't have it any other way.

A willowy woman with a warm laugh, Smith has channeled childhood cooking experiences and lessons learned as an international model into the success of B. Smith's restaurants in Washington and New York, where she counts Lena Horne and Robert DeNiro among her clientele.

Last year Smith distilled that experience into a lavishly illustrated book called "B. Smith's Entertaining and Cooking for Friends," (Artisan). In 1997, she'll introduce her special blend of hostessing style and culinary know-how to a national television audience with a show that embodies her one entertaining rule: that there is no "how to," only "why not?" "I tell people to start with just one thing," she says. "Even if it's soup, you've created something and brought people together. Sharing and seeing people enjoy it is really special." Smith brings the same spirit to her work as a public speaker, a spokesmodel for Oil of Olay, a fund-raiser and member of several women's and business groups, and as the first black woman on the board of the Culinary Institute of America, the country's most influential cooking school. She handles all that - on top of raising her 10-year-old stepdaughter, Dana by striving for balance, she says, and by keeping in mind that "there is no perfection in life." Balance often means involving her husband and daughter in projects. They helped test the book recipes three times, and the TV pilot was filmed in her Long Island home. The show will follow the same lines as her book, offering tips on sensible eating habits, cooking, and entertaining. The book invites the reader along on five of Smith's favorite gatherings: a beach picnic; a cocktail party; a holiday buffet; an intimate dinner for two, and a formal dinner for eight. Smith gives short cuts, and time-saving and creative-decorating tips. It's a very personal effort, part entertainment manual, part biography: Smith's friends and family appear in the photographs, and recipes often come with vignettes explaining where she discovered them, how she has gently tweaked her mother's tried-and-true formulas, and which dishes she served at her own wedding dinner. Smith's culinary education began early, watching her mother and maternal grandmother (she dedicates the book to both of them), "cooking up a storm for church picnics and holiday meals, bake sales, Sunday dinners for visiting preachers, funerals, and weddings." Her memories of childhood in western Pennsylvania have the quality of a Norman Rockwell idyll, with bread rising on heating grates, stews simmering on the stove, and fruit pies cooling on the window sill. "We ate meals together as a family always," Smith remembers. "My parents kept a large flower garden, they grew fruit and vegetables. We went to the lake, picked walnuts, {went} sled riding; people don't grow up that way anymore." Smith's parents, whom she describes as hard-working, spiritual people, created a home that was a hub of activity. Consciously or unconsciously, Smith has recreated that atmosphere at her restaurants in Washington and New York. "It's not just a restaurant," she says gesturing around her New York eatery. "It's a community and cultural center. We have weddings, birthdays, a play-reading series, fund-raisers, you name it, we've done it. It's more than just a public place." Smith had no intention of making a living this way. "I didn't foresee a career entertaining or cooking," she says. "The first thing I wanted to do was model." With her father's permission, she traveled three hours every weekend to take a modeling class in Pittsburgh and moved to New York at 19 to become a professional. Smith's modeling career with the top-flight Wilhemina agency took her around the world, made her a cover girl, and, in 1976, the first black woman to grace the cover of Mademoiselle. …

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