A Sweet, Southern Thanksgiving Treat From B. Smith

Nov 22, 2011

As Thanksgiving approaches, you can almost smell and taste the turkey, buttered collard greens and soft corn bread stuffing. As a pre-feast treat, Tell Me More guest host Tony Cox visits a woman whose name to many is synonymous with fine Southern cuisine and entertaining: Barbara Smith, also known as B. Smith.

Today, she runs restaurants, writes cookbooks and designs a home goods collection. But before all this, she was a model who graced the covers of such magazines as Mademoiselle and Ebony. How did she go from fashion to food?

"I learned to cook with my parents. Holidays, we had Thanksgiving. That was our family holiday. Christmas was always at my grandmother's, and Easter was at my aunt's," she tells Cox. "I didn't take any classes. I didn't go culinary school. Instead, I got on the board of the Culinary Institute."

Smith was the first African-American woman elected to the board of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

The Presidential Suite

Today, one of B. Smith's most striking restaurants is located in Washington, D.C., in what was once known as the "presidential suite" at Union Station. The suite was created after the assassinations of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, to increase the safety of traveling commanders-in-chief and their families. While the suite no longer serves its official purpose, Smith hosted an inaugural event for first lady Michelle Obama there in 2009.

B. Smith Knows Bread Pudding

One of the mouth-watering treats that the restaurant serves is bread pudding, which Cox tasted before his interview with Smith. Executive Chef Karida Celestine prepared the dessert, topping it off with bourbon sauce and pumpkin ice cream.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

It's so close to Thanksgiving that you can almost taste the turkey, the collard greens, the mac and cheese and cornbread stuffing. So as a pre-feast treat, we decided to visit with the woman whose name is synonymous with fine southern cuisine.


COX: Nice to meet you.

SMITH: Nice to meet you. How are you?

COX: Just fine. How are you?

SMITH: I'm good, thank you.

COX: Thanks for having us.

SMITH: Oh, our pleasure. Our pleasure.

COX: Her name is Barbara Smith, but to most, she's known as simply B. Smith. She's a former model turned restaurateur and her brand includes everything from restaurants to cookbooks to a furniture line and a home goods collection.

We catch up with her at the most stunning of her three B. Smith Restaurant locations, the one at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and we asked her to describe one of the rooms in the palatial dining areas.

SMITH: That's the Shining Room, but I will tell you, it has a special meaning for me in a couple different ways.

COX: Okay.

SMITH: Let's walk over there.

COX: Okay. She leads us to a room at the end of the main dining area. Gold leaf trim traces the crown molding on the walls and ceiling, which is more than 30 feet high. The room also has large glass doors, allowing patrons to gaze out at the main dining area, but still maintain an air of privacy.

SMITH: I just love the grandeur of this space, so we have our small dinners in here and people just love it. Here, it's majestic. And these are eagles that are the same that are in the White House.

COX: The Presidential seals?

SMITH: Yes, the seals. Uh-huh.

COX: Speaking of the White House, B. Smith tells us President Obama has dined here, too, as part of his inauguration ceremony.

SMITH: I was the first that they put right by the door and, when he came in, he said, hello, B. And we shook hands and he said, thank you for all you do.

COX: Really?

SMITH: Well, be still my heart.

COX: Some of B. Smith's delectable dishes include a crab cake with jalapeno mustard sauce, B.'s Bayou Jambalaya and her signature dish is Swamp Thang. Not Thing, Thang. This blends sauteed shrimp and scallops with a rich Dijon cream sauce and served on a bed of collard greens.

So where are we going next?

SMITH: I think we should go into the kitchen.

COX: Okay. And by the way, you may want to grab a pencil and pad to take notes for this next part. It's for B. Smith's popular dessert item, Bourbon Street Bread Pudding. The full recipe can be found on our website, NPR.org. Search for TELL ME MORE and B. Smith.

SMITH: We're in our kitchen here in Union Station at B. Smith's Restaurant and I am proud to say I am here with my lady chef. Women rule here. This is Karida.

KARIDA CELESTINE: Hello, everyone. Hello, everyone. I'm the executive chef here in Washington, D.C.'s B. Smith Restaurant. Today, we're going to do our Bourbon Street Bread Pudding with a twist. We're going to do it with Craisins and we're going to have a wonderful time doing it today.

COX: Executive Chef Karita Celestine whisks together a medley of ingredients.

CELESTINE: I have three-fourths quart of heavy cream. I'm going to put that in here in a nice mixing bowl. I have three eggs. I have wonderful vanilla extract. I have two tablespoons of that. It smells wonderful.

COX: Later, she adds the Craisins and the heavy whipping cream. It should be a yellowish color when it's done. Next, toss in your cubes of half inch thick brioche bread.

CELESTINE: You want to use some bread with a little bit more texture than your usual bread so it can hold that sauce in it when it cooks.

COX: Let this mixture sit for 30 minutes before popping it in the oven set to 350 degrees and bake for an hour. Finally, add the bourbon topping sauce. By the way, that recipe is also at NPR.org. And, voila, a treat for the palate.

CELESTINE: You're going to wow everyone and you're going to say, wow, I did it just like B. did it. There you are.

COX: That looks great, doesn't it?

SMITH: Time to taste it.

COX: Yeah. Oh, my, that looks really, really - oh, my God, this is great. We're lucky on this afternoon. The kitchen is between shifts, but it will soon be bustling for a big birthday bash later this evening, it's for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. So we pull up two chairs. So we're back in the presidential signing room.

Do people call you B.?


COX: They do?

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

COX: That's what I thought. I can call you B. too, right?

SMITH: You can call me B.


SMITH: You can call me Barbara. Just call me.


COX: One of the things that struck me about you is that you seem very concerned about two things: one is obviously trying to be successful. But at the same time it appears to me that you are trying to be successful without losing connection to common people.

SMITH: Absolutely. You know, I grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania and I am who I am today because of my parents, my aunts and uncles, the family, and growing up in that small town. I was also a paper girl. You know, I sold magazines. I, you know, I did all kinds of things and I was very involved with my parents in cooking and decorating and, you know. So what I do today - much of what I do is what I did as a young girl.

COX: You know, one of the things about your career - and you've done so many things and we are going to hit on all of them if time permits - it seems like a big leap to go from modeling to food, but you've managed to do that. What was it that drove you in your interest in food?

SMITH: First of all, I do love food. I don't love it in the same way that a lot of people do. I mean because I try to be healthy and I, you know, try to take care of myself. And going to modeling school, you learn, you know, that's another thing, when you're in a business like that you have to be your best. You work long days. You travel. Sometimes you're, you know, you're away from home quite a, you know, quite a while but it was good. I lived in Paris. I lived in Milan. I lived in Vienna, you know, so the job was really a great job for me.

But the food, I learned to cook with my parents. You know, holidays, we had Thanksgiving. That was our family holiday, Christmas was always at my grandmother's and Easter was at my aunt's.

COX: But to take that to the professional level, you were described as a nonprofessional chef. You like that?

SMITH: I didn't take any classes and I didn't go to culinary school. Instead, I went and got on the board of the Culinary Institute.


SMITH: I went straight to the boardroom.


SMITH: But I don't mind it, because what it says is you too can do what she's doing. There was no formal education. I was educated by my family and then I learned on my own more. I'm self-taught in many ways.

COX: So did you still cook when you were modeling?

SMITH: Oh, yeah. Sometimes my clients would call the agency and they'd say well, what size is she right now?


COX: That's funny. I want to read something to you.

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

COX: This is from a interview that you did with The New York Times 12 years ago. And it talks about Martha Stewart. And in it, it says when someone asked why the seafood brochettes must be grilled at room temperature you admitted that you had no idea. Here's the quote. If I'd gone to the Culinary Institute of America I could tell you, she said, I'm on the board but I skipped school. You already mentioned that part again.

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

COX: But you said this also, this is not about perfection. It's about passion - that you said over and over again - according to this article, and that you constantly set yourself up as the anti-Martha.

SMITH: Right. Because Martha is like a symphony and I'm like jazz. Jazz.


COX: Do the comparisons to Martha Stewart, do they wear on you?

SMITH: No, because since I'm not on TV right now there is no comparison.

COX: You know, you have created this eating phenomenon here in Washington and in New York. How do you balance the kind of Southern cuisine that you offer with the challenges that quote/unquote "soul food" present to people of color?

SMITH: Well, it sort of depends. I try to make sure that we have enough food that those who are wanting to eat healthy can certainly eat healthy - with the salads and some of the soups and, you know, some of the dishes. And you can also ask for things the way you want it. I may not want a gravy on mine. I, you know, I may want my - can I have greens just steamed? Kale. I like steamed kale. So I try to make sure that my chefs and the servers help folks eat the way they want to eat.

COX: Have you had to change the menu to reflect this?

SMITH: Well, not really.

COX: Yeah?

SMITH: I mean let me say, I think that I've always tended to have healthier items on - a balanced menu, because everyone doesn't have a problem with either pork or with, you know, fat or what have you; they want it. Deep-fried, they want it but there are other people don't want it deep-fried. Like we have fried green tomatoes and they're in a batter and there is some cheese on top and there's a little sauce on top; it's pretty rich. I order grilled green tomatoes. Now since I ordered the grilled green tomatoes, if one of my servers suggested to somebody who is having the fried green tomatoes, they may want it too. So and they are good grilled.

COX: But, you know, people might think to look at you because they've seen you in front of the camera on television, on stage, in books, for a number of years now, that it was an easy road, that it was a straight shot. What's it like that?

SMITH: No, it wasn't like that. It wasn't easy. I always - I jokingly say I'm going to write a book one day and it's going to be called "It Only Looked Easy."

COX: Oh, that's a great title.

SMITH: I should do something with it right now.


SMITH: But it only - it looks easy.

Well, what was your biggest challenge?

The challenge back then was the color of my skin.

COX: Because you're brown-skinned?

SMITH: Yes. And the type of hair. You know, because I would, they would ask me to wear wigs and I did it because I was working. I was happy to do what they, you know, what they wanted but - and then one day I decided as I kept going on, I wanted to be free. I freed myself.


COX: But this was after your career.

SMITH: Well, it was after when - yes. Yes. Pretty, pretty much. But I've been a spokesperson like for General Mills with their biscuits and with cornbread and muffin mix and so I have hair like this and nobody says a word. But years ago, you know, it would've been hard and I would've been told you have to put a wig on, I'd have to wrap it. I would have to wrap my head and then put a wig on that. But, you know, it was a time and space and I got through all of that. But if you're professional you do what you have to do.

COX: By the way, if you're just tuning in, we are talking with B. Smith at her restaurant, B. Smith, in Union Station in Washington D.C. Which is tougher for a black woman B., the fashion industry or the food industry?

SMITH: The fashion industry. Only because we've been cooking for years for other people. People of color have been cooking for years for other people. So that makes it - the fashion industry was tougher.

COX: How tough has it been for you, even though you had great success, to stay at the top, so to speak? The restaurant business is one of the most risky businesses you can get into. How have you managed to do this?

SMITH: I managed it, I had a partner when I first started; it was a restaurant group, and eventually I met my husband in my first restaurant and we decided we wanted to be partners. And so we, you know, we broke off from the group and we, you know, opened another restaurant around the corner. It's not an easy business at all and I was really thankful when he decided he wanted to go into the business.

COX: Your husband?

SMITH: My husband, yes, Dan Gasby, who is a brilliant man and my best friend. I wouldn't really suggest it unless somebody really is passionate about it. I'm still passionate about it. I love people. I love feeding people. I love making people happy. I like the private events that we have.

COX: But hasn't the recession hit you also?

SMITH: It - yeah, because it's a lot harder to make a dime right now than it has ever been, really since I've been in business. One other time it was, you know, we had a downturn in the economy. But still there are people who are eating out, so if we're doing the right thing we're getting the business.

COX: Let's talk for a moment about oh, one of many things you're an expert in: food and hosting.

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

COX: What are the big dos, the big don'ts for Thanksgiving?

SMITH: Well, the dos are to have a well-balanced, flavorful meal from beginning to end. So, Thanksgiving is a day that I think people should enjoy. I think that people who are having their holiday meals, they don't want to eat differently than everybody else. They want to eat the same. So instead of doing a stuffing with white bread, I would do it with whole-grain bread. I would change up some of the deserts and I would use maybe a agave nectar in it, or a Splenda, you know, brown sugar or what have you, to make it healthier, because I remember when my dad had diabetes and we were eating, you know, a certain way and he wanted to eat and he ate healthy, so we prepared the food healthy for him. And I think that that can happen. I mean turkey isn't, you know, turkey, I have jerk turkey.

COX: Jerk turkey.

SMITH: That's what I make. I make every year jerk turkey. Jerk seasoning from Jamaica and I probably have it in the refrigerator in the seasoning for about, you know, 24 hours, maybe a little longer. And the first time I made it, till today family is like we want to jerk chicken - turkey.

COX: Having it this year or too?

SMITH: We are. We are. And we have, in the New York restaurant, we have jerk turkey.

COX: You do?

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

COX: So the don'ts. What are the big don'ts for Thanksgiving?

SMITH: I think the big don'ts are going to a meal hungry.

COX: Really?

SMITH: One Thanksgiving you should not go to the meal hungry. Because if you go to the meal hungry you're going to eat too much.

COX: But isn't that the whole idea for Thanksgiving to just eat...

SMITH: Eat too much? Eat until you...

COX: (unintelligible).


SMITH: Well, it was when I was young.


SMITH: Everybody seemed to follow its way back to the meal.

COX: Thank you B., for the time. I really did appreciate talking with you. We could talk for a lot longer, but I know you have a big event.

SMITH: I do. But there's one thing I do want to say.

COX: Please.

SMITH: When I write that book it's going to be "It Only Looked Easy."

COX: Like I'm telling you, that's a money title.



COX: That was restaurateur, author, and spokesperson B. Smith. We sat down in her Washington, D.C. restaurant, B. Smith. And remember, to follow the recipe for B. Smith's Bourbon Street Bread Pudding, go to npr.org and search for TELL ME MORE and B. Smith.

And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.