JASPER, Fla. — When you are pushing Art Smith's red pickup out of the North Florida mud during an excursion to find donkeys descended from a pair his father once gave his mother as an anniversary gift, the impulse is to look around for a camera crew.
As his Venezuelan-born husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, mutters about Smith's driving skills, and the four children they adopted a couple of years ago run through a field like free-range chickens, the only logical thought is that this must be reality television. But it is, in fact, Smith's new life.
Last August, the chef, who spent much of his career cooking for Oprah Winfrey and two Florida governors before he started a small but lucrative collection of Southern-themed restaurants, moved his family from a 5,000-square-foot Chicago apartment to this tiny town he couldn't wait to leave as a child.
Smith, 56, is a golden retriever of a man who drops names like napkins and who networks like a movie mogul, skills he is bringing to bear on what seems an improbable quest: reviving a town of about 4,000, whose biggest employers are a phosphate plant and a nursing home.
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The plan is to open a commercial bakery, a farm store, a restaurant and a school for meteorology, agriculture and cooking, all with the help of Walt Disney World, the heiress to the Red Stripe beer fortune, some government officials and a lot of cake.
From all appearances, it is a wild ride down a country road that is either going to end in a spectacular crash or, as one supporter described it, turn into "what Dan Barber did at Blue Hill, but more country."
"Honey, is it crazy?" Smith asked. "I don't care. If we want to build a kinder country, we need to bring some kind of change to these rural, outlying areas."
Jasper, the biggest town in one of the poorest counties in Florida, is a 15-minute drive from the Georgia border and a short hop off Interstate 75. Carloads of families gun past the Jasper exit to Disney World, which is three hours down the highway.
Disney is key to his plan. Early this summer, Smith is to open a 200-seat restaurant at the resort called Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine. Disney, which is essentially his landlord, promotes it as its first foray into "farm-to-fork cuisine." The design was inspired by turn-of-the-century Florida architecture. The menu will have dishes like deviled eggs, chicken and dumplings, and kale salad with pecans and Georgia cheese.
The showpiece will be Southern cakes. He is planning 12-layer cakes, Key lime poundcakes and moonshine cakes, homage to a grandfather who was a moonshiner and whose body is buried in a little family graveyard filled with thistles and grasshoppers a few miles from the former tobacco farm the Smiths still own.
If the plan comes together, the cakes will be made by people who live in and around Hamilton County. Smith pitched the idea of linking Jasper jobs and the restaurant to Disney executives in a meeting at which he served a hummingbird cake, the Southern cousin of carrot cake, made with pecans, pineapple and bananas.
"You know how we use cake for everything here?" he asked. "I told the mouse, how would you like it if every slice of cake you serve helps save a small Southern town?" It didn't hurt that during his undergraduate years at Florida State University, he interned in a Disney World kitchen.
The cakes will be baked inside what is now a shuttered 60,000-square-foot complex that once held a poker room and a 500-seat court for jai alai, the Basque sport that in its American heyday attracted thousands of fans and gamblers. His dream is to expand it into a commercial bakery that sends out thousands of cakes and biscuits across the South.
The Hamilton County Development Authority has bought the complex for $1.5 million, with the agreement that Smith will work his magic. He estimates it will cost $3 million to open the bakery and turn the rest into a country store selling organic produce, a gallery featuring his husband's art and a restaurant. On the 38 acres that surround the building, there will be a farm and catfish ponds.
Much of the money is expected to come from a group of young California filmmakers who like to invest in economically challenged areas (and who prefer to be anonymous).
"We're going to make it look like a Cracker Barrel with better food, honey," Smith said.
The other piece of his grand scheme is the Reunion Florida Garden and Kitchen School, which he plans to open this fall in a restored antebellum mansion he bought from the local community college in nearby Madison for $450,000. Students can take online courses or train to work at the bakery.
Charles Annenberg Weingarten, a philanthropist who supports Smith's educational charity, Common Threads, is giving the school $250,000 because he believes food is a way to restore dying communities. "Rural small-town America was the backbone of Americana values," he wrote in an email. "Now, these towns are closed, rundown and consist of one street with fast food."
'Nobody is going to tell Art no'
If it all seems too much to pull off, remember that Art Smith is a man who has cooked for President Obama and the British royal family, whose children received formal baptismal blessings from the pope and who is friends with Lady Gaga and Jeb Bush.
"He is a force of nature, and if anyone can make all of these pieces come together, it's him," said Adam Putnam, a former Republican congressman who is now Florida's commissioner of agriculture. "Nobody is going to tell Art no."
Indeed, it's easy to get caught up in Smith's web.
"Art is like the Pied Piper," said Susan Levin Turner, a Jasper native who owns the restaurant Food Glorious Food in Tallahassee and is one of the South's cake authorities. She is serving as baking consultant and cheerleader for Smith, helping him focus. That is a considerable task.
"Everybody wants to jump on the bus," she said, "but we need to make sure the bus is ready to go."
Margie Geddes, the millionaire heiress of Red Stripe, the beer her husband pioneered in Jamaica, has already claimed her seat on the bus.
She first met Smith in Tuscany. She began spending time in Jasper after her daughter, Lisa St. John, a nature lover who wanted a quieter, gentler place to raise her children, bought a Greek Revival house around the corner from the Victorian farmhouse where Smith moved his family. His mother, Addie Mae, lives a couple of blocks away in the house Smith grew up in.
Geddes bought the abandoned soda fountain and other buildings in Jasper with the intention of building a gym and maybe a juice bar as a way to help revitalize a town she said is "at the bottom of the barrel."
"People are hungry for basics again," she said from her home on Grand Cayman. "They want that village feeling, the feeling of knowing your neighbors and life lived on front porches. Jasper takes you back to the front porch."
A small Southern town with conservative Christian roots is not exactly the kind of place one may expect to embrace a man who once staged a mass gay wedding at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, married his own partner on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2010, and then renewed his vows during a wedding for gay and lesbian couples on "Top Chef."
"They just accept Art for Art," said Ina Thompson, a town commissioner in Madison, who owns an office supply and shipping store there. "The fact that he is gay doesn't matter. Even if it does bother them, they're not making it known."
To be sure, in both Jasper and Madison, Smith is greeted like a returning hero. A gas-station clerk applauded Smith's significant weight loss, which was prompted by a diabetes diagnosis and achieved with the help of his personal trainer, Noah Sanderson, who has moved to Jasper. Smith hopes Sanderson will help lead a fitness revival among residents.
Smith is the area's most famous resident since Lillian Smith, the author whose best-selling 1944 novel, "Strange Fruit," touched on themes of racism and interracial romance. His speeches at the local chamber of commerce sell out. They still talk about the Christmas cookie contest Smith had at the mansion in Madison, and the party he gave when the girls' high-school basketball team won the state championship.
"Everyone thinks we're Jesus come to save the town," Smith said. "It's hard." Still, the attention feeds him.
"He loves all that celebrity chef stuff, but that man gives more than he receives, believe me," said his husband, Salgueiro. "I see so many people with more celebrity than him who don't give back nothing."
That his restaurants aren't always well regarded by critics and other chefs doesn't matter that much.
"My mission is to use the business to fund the good stuff I want to do," he 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."
KEY LIME POUNDCAKE
Makes 8 to 10 servings
For the Cake:
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into pieces, plus more for greasing the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, more for flouring the pan
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
4 ounces cream cheese at room temperature, cut into pieces
1 ½ cups granulated white sugar
4 eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons lime zest
1 tablespoon Key lime juice
For the Glaze:
4 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
¼ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
¼ cup Key lime juice
2 tablespoons lime zest
1. Make the cake: Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Sift the flour and baking powder and set aside.
2. Mix butter and cream cheese in bowl of a stand mixer, or with a hand mixer on medium speed, until blended; gradually add sugar and beat on medium speed for five minutes until light in color and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs about a quarter at a time, fully incorporating before adding the next.
3. Add lime zest and mix to incorporate. Add dry ingredients alternately with lime juice, beginning and ending with flour mixture and adding juice in two additions. Mix just enough to incorporate.
4. Bake for about one hour, or until just set in the middle. Check cake after 30 minutes; if top is browning too quickly, tent with foil. If the cake is not set in the middle after an hour, continue baking, checking middle at five-minute intervals, until set.
5. Cool in the pan for 20 minutes; loosen edges and turn out cake onto plate with raised edges to contain the glaze.
6. Meanwhile, make the glaze: In a glass bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until well blended and a little fluffy, about two minutes. With the mixer on slow speed, gradually add powdered sugar until fully incorporated, then beat for 20 to 30 seconds.
7. Mix in the lime juice, then heat the mixture in a microwave oven for a minute or more until it is very warm and loose. Using a wooden skewer, poke several holes in the cake. Pour half the glaze over cake, let sit for 10 minutes, pour remaining glaze over cake and sprinkle with lime zest.
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