Cooks’ Tour // Art Smith and Jesus Salgueiro // Common Threads

Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp
art smith and jesus salgueiro
Jesus Salgueiro, left, and Art Smith

In October 2001, a month after planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Art Smith and his life partner, Jesus Salgueiro, traveled to New York on a mission of healing. Smith, probably best known as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, had been asked to cook dinner for a mother and her three school-age children. “The father had disappeared in the rubble making a delivery to tower two,” Smith recalls. “It was as if time had stopped for this family.”

The next day, Smith and Salgueiro toured Ground Zero and came across a makeshift memorial that tallied the disaster’s international victims. “It was just profound,” says Smith. “It didn’t just happen to America but to the whole world.”

Back in Chicago, the trip planted a seed. Salgueiro, an artist who had left Venezuela for the United States in 1979, retreated to his studio to paint. Smith, a native of Florida (where he was the executive chef for then governor Bob Graham), put pen to paper-and the words poured out. “For our world is a quilt,” he wrote, “its people the fabric, all joined together by common threads.” Those early notes turned into a book proposal, and though it was rejected by publishers, it grew into something grander: an organization devoted to children, the culinary arts, and world cultures called Common Threads.

To get things started, Smith and Salgueiro met with ShoreBank’s Linda Novick-O’Keefe to discuss a loan. “Art said he wanted to teach kids through food and cooking that we are more similar than different,” Novick-O’Keefe recalls. “I loved the idea so much I started writing the business plan.” In March 2004, with Novick-O’Keefe as its executive director, Common Threads held its first class. Smith himself taught 16 budding chefs from all over the city how to make corn bread and biscuits from scratch.

Today, operating out of an office at Kendall College (one of its seven cooking sites), the not-for-profit teaches kids ages 8 to 12 valuable lessons about nutrition, food preparation, and other countries’ customs and traditions. In 2007, the program will reach 750 children, most of whom come from low-income households. Dozens of Chicago’s culinary stars volunteer to teach classes or participate in fundraisers, and Novick-O’Keefe recently persuaded Blackbird’s Tara Lane, one of the city’s top pastry chefs, to join the organization as its program manager. In September, Common Threads will test a pilot class in Los Angeles.

Smith, 46, has a third book (on family cooking) and a new restaurant called Table on the way, while Salgueiro, also 46, creates dazzling renderings of manhole covers from cities around the world. As for Common Threads, Smith recalls meeting a receptionist at Evanston’s Hotel Orrington a few months ago. “I walked in, and this lady said to me, ‘Are you the one that created the great program that my children go to?'” Smith says. “I came home to Jesus and said, ‘We have arrived.'”