A Model of Perfection
In her restaurants, or entertaining at home, Barbara Smith has the touch.
NEW YORK — 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.
As Smith moved on, cooking and entertaining remained a constant. "Even in her teeniest little New York apartments she would have dinner parties," says Nancy Doll, a close friend from Smith's modeling days. "I still remember, from the very beginning, a chicken dish with corn bread on top that she made for ... maybe 30 people."
Smith picked up recipes and ideas on her travels that have made their way onto the menus in her restaurants and her book, creating an eclectic blend of the homespun and the international.
At B. Smith's in New York, the menu features Maine Lobster Ravioli; Spiced Scampi with Mango Glaze and Plantains; Escallop of Duck and Black-eyed Peas. A potato latke takes a sophisticated turn with the addition of leeks, and a topping of roast tomatoes, smoked salmon, creme fraiche, and caviar.
Smith was always aware modeling would be a short-lived career and her other pursuits - singing and acting - would mean endless knocking on doors. "I was in a very competitive business and I wanted control of my life," she says.
"Early in my career, I wrote down where in life I wanted to go."
Smith read Napoleon Hills's "Think and Grow Rich," and "The Master Key to Riches," books she sees as focusing not just on monetary riches, but on enriching your life as a whole. "I learned you have to write down goals, envision where you're going, how you're going to get there," she says.
"I liked to cook and entertain, and like modeling, the food business is the entertainment business." She developed her restaurant manager skills, first as a hostess and then as a floor manager, before opening B. Smith in the theater district in 1986.
Ten years later, Smith is still actively involved in the day-to-day running of B. Smith's, checking in on the kitchen, making sure an entree is pleasing, testing recipes, discreetly sending a waitress to change a slightly soiled blouse.
The key to managing it all lies in spirituality and balance, Smith says. "It's very important to me. It shapes the way I relate to my husband, daughter, community.
"There's something spiritual about bringing people together ... that's why it's important to enjoy the process."
Smith is celebrating her 10-year anniversary as a restaurateur by buying out her partner. And as one 10-year cycle ends and another begins, she is still writing lists of goals. "There are new ones all the time," she says with a smile. "The cable show, becoming a public corporation, adopting kids."
If the last 10 years are anything to judge by, she'll be busy. "On my tombstone, I don't want it to say 'I wish I had done something,' " Smith says with a laugh. "I want it to say 'She did everything she wanted to do' !"
Roasted Plum Tomato Soup With Chevre Croutons
This soup is a beautiful velvety red that provides a colorful addition to your table. Because plum tomatoes are always available, you can make this soup year-round.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/2 cup finely diced turnip
1/2 cup finely diced carrot
2 teaspoons minced garlic
4 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup tomato paste
3 cups roasted plum tomatoes (recipe follows) with their cooking juices
1/4 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
3 tablespoons chevre (goat cheese)
12 small slices French bread
Extra parsley leaves, for garnish
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saut onion, turnip, carrot, and garlic until softened. Stir in the stock, tomato paste, and roasted tomatoes. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.
Finely chop 1 tablespoon of the basil leaves. In a small bowl, combine the chopped basil and 1 tablespoon of the parsley with the mascarpone and chvre. Blend thoroughly. Spread mixture over the slices of French bread. Preheat the broiler and grill the croutons for two minutes, or until golden brown.
Coarsely chop the remaining basil leaves, and stir the basil and the remaining parsley into the soup. Serve soup topped with two croutons. Garnish with extra parsley.
Roasted Plum Tomatoes
24 large ripe plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise, and place them cut-side up in a large roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with herbs. Roast 45 minutes.
Let tomatoes cool slightly before removing skins and seeds, and coarsely chop the flesh.
Makes about three cups.