Knocked Out Diabetes

The man known for his soulful Southern cuisine had always been heavy. But in 2009, while Art Smith was charming the world on Top Chef Masters, his new fans didn’t realize that he had put on 50 pounds in just the prior five years—initially as a way to deal with the stress of his now-husband Jesus Salgueiro’s cancer diagnosis (he is now cancer-free). “I would pick at food during the day and then eat five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at night,” Smith says. “I ate a lot of dessert. Sugar is my crack.”

Plumpness had never hindered his career; if anything, it enhanced his larger-than-life persona. So he just kept ordering bigger chef’s coats and bought slip-on shoes because he couldn’t bend to tie his laces. When he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2008, he put a Band-Aid on the problem with meds. It took a series of severe panic attacks in 2009—triggered by the fear that he, like his father and grandfather, would die of a diabetes-related heart attack—to stir him to action.

How He Lost It

The chef contacted Az Ferguson, a health coach based in Los Angeles, who camped out at Smith’s Hyde Park home for an initial three weeks to whip him into some semblance of shape. Ferguson created an exercise plan that incorporated Smith’s interests. The once-sedentary chef’s one-hour daily workouts began with walking along the lakefront, typically in the morning, and eventually progressed to light jogging.

Ferguson also observed Smith’s eating habits and prescribed a 2,500-calorie-a-day diet (Smith had been consuming twice that much before) that eschewed processed foods and focused on getting the main nutrients from a range of properly proportioned sources such as egg whites, lean chicken, and greens. Ferguson also started Smith on drinking four liters of water a day. “Giving up products that had sugar and corn syrup, that was the hardest part,” Smith recalls. “I used to eat gallons of ice cream. But I found that if you can keep those things out of your diet, it has a profound effect.”

In two weeks, Smith lost 20 pounds; in a year, 124. By 2011, he had run two marathons and proudly showed off his new 205-pound physique on former client Oprah Winfrey’s show.

How He Maintains It

Smith ultimately decided that the daily workouts and strict abstinence necessary to maintain his weight near 200 pounds were taking too much of a toll on his life. “It had a bad effect on my relationship,” he explains. “I became very self-absorbed.”

With his current trainer, Chicago-based Joey Thurman, Smith has stuck with the fundamentals of his transformation: He still works out an hour every day—a mix of cardio (jogging along the lake, elliptical training twice a week), machine circuit training (such as rows, pull-ups, and squats), and, more recently, swimming. But he also began allowing himself occasional indulgences, such as his beloved skillet-fried chicken (a healthier version is below). “I came to the realization I’ll never be a little person,” he says. “I’ve been that, and it wasn’t me. What I can be is a healthy me.”

Smith shoots for 3,000 calories a day, spread across five small meals. Staples include oatmeal, fruit, and Greek yogurt for breakfast (“If I start off healthy in the morning, I’m more likely to stay healthy all day”) and salad and a protein-based soup for lunch. “For dinner, if it’s really late, I’ll make a vegetable smoothie with protein powder,” Smith says.

Though he has regained 50 pounds (he’d like to relose 25 of those), Smith has reaped huge health benefits. “I no longer have to take medication for my diabetes,” he says. “That’s enough.”


Art Smith’s Unfried Chicken

Unfried Chicken
Photo: Anna Knott

Yield: 4 servings
Calories per serving: 427
Prep time: 90 minutes
Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

1 cup Buttermilk
1 Tbsp. Hot sauce
4 Skinless and boneless chicken breasts, cut in half
1½ cups Multigrain or whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs
3 Tbsp. Grated Parmesan
2 tsp. Ground black pepper
1 tsp. Cayenne pepper
1½ tsp. Onion powder
1½ tsp. Garlic powder
1 tsp. Paprika
1 Lemon, quartered

1. Combine the buttermilk and hot sauce in a large bowl, submerge the chicken, and soak in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour (but no more than 24 hours).

2. In a gallon-size plastic bag, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and all seasonings. Seal the bag and shake until well mixed.

3. Place the chicken straight from the buttermilk into the bag with the mixture. Seal and shake the bag until the chicken is evenly coated.

4. Lay the chicken flat on a nonstick baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

5. Bake the chicken for 20 to 25 minutes, or until just cooked through.

6. Divide the chicken among four serving plates and squeeze the lemon over the chicken.