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Chef Art Smith Talks about LYFE in Culver City

Photo courtesy of NBC UMV
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Chef Art Smith has quite the resume. He's cooked for the likes of Oprah, and has been a cheftestant (twice!) on Top Chef Masters. Today Smith opened up LYFE Kitchen in Culver City, and his hoping that the sustainability/health-focused quick-serve concept will make eating well just that much easier for Angelenos.

The Southern-born chef is happy to be opening in L.A. "I love Culver City," he says. "The mayor is the sweetest man." And we're stoked to have him around. So in the spirit of welcoming Smith and LYFE to the 'hood, we thought we'd have a chat with him about the concept.

This is all a bit of a shift from your work in fine dining at Table Fifty-Two. What's the concept behind LYFE (Love Your Food Everyday) Kitchen?

I'm not interested in doing expensive food anymore. I know how hard it is for people to make money, but everyone deserves good food ... The idea is all about creating something that tastes good and is good for you. The reality is that our world is in such need of food that's affordable and healthful. The person who figures that out [how to make that accessible to everyone] will win the Nobel Peace Prize.

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But the trick is, it has to be great tasting. You have to make it so that it's more appealing to a larger crowd. And it has to be quick serve. Kids don't want to sit down. The whole concept behind LYFE is about providing affordable food that tasted great and that's free of things that people are concerned about: no white flour, no white sugar, no bad carbs. There's no fryer at all, and no GMOs. The only way you can get people to care is to demonstrate it and show that it's important.

And how do you demonstrate that in a restaurant?

There's no heat-and-serve here. There's a real mac daddy kitchen. There's nothing pre-fab about it. Most of those big places, there's not much cooking going on. There's gotta be some magic. If they [your customers] don't see people cooking, they're not gonna get it. Besides, if there's no cooking, why do you need a chef beind it?

Most food snobs might turn up their nose at a partnership with the folks behind McDonald's. But why do you think that partnership is important in order to bring healthy food to the masses?

Honey, nothing about this place is anything like McDonald's. When you've got Mike Roberts on board, who ran Mc Donald's worldwide, he just knows how it's done. They're just shifting the focus. We all know that they're a very successful company. If it doesn't make money, it ain't gonna last. That's the reality. You have to have people who know how to make it a business. We're more of a boutique operation, of course, but they already have those relationships and know-how.

Corporate America is looking to chefs to make food sexy. There's never been such a demand for it. You've got all these young chefs who want to open a fancy restaurant, but my advice would be for chefs to say “okay, look at how people eat. How can I make that better? How can I make that fresher? That to me is the future.

How did you and vegan chef Tal Roonen collaborate on the menu? Do your styles and culinary perspectives differ?

I'm like St. Francis of Assisi of animals; I adopt everything. So I respect him and respect being vegan. I've stopped eating chicken actually. I respect vegetarians. There's no pork on the menu. And the grass fed beef is from the Hearst Ranch. I think people in general need to eat more fruits and vegetables.

How do you help each location connect with the local farmers and purveyors? Does each menu reflect the local culinary landscape and available ingredients?

All of the food is from 100 mile radius around the locations ... What I've seen in Chicago is that there are a lot of great indoor farms and hoop houses. They're really learning to grow organically in those conditions.

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Is the hope then that this will spur smaller farms to start up so they can provide the restaurant with produce?

Most definitely. I believe that if the demand is there, they will grow. You look at someone like Alice [Waters], and she got the farmers to grow those unique lettuces for the first time. And look how she changed the landscape.

You personally went through a huge body transformation. How did access to good food help with that?

Totally. I was very fortunate. I wanted to live life full, and live as a whole being. If you eat and live life whole, you don't have worry about counting calories. What makes people overweight is processed food. And that's the idea: we have to keep it fresh, we have to keep it whole, and it has to be mostly vegetables and fruit. It's all about living life in balance. My general rule is if it ain't made by hand, don't eat it.

Is it difficult to find healthful ways to cook as a Southern chef? When people think about that cuisine they often associate it with the Paula Deen like theory of “butter is better.”

What I try to do, darlin, is be fussy. I use naturally raised, organic chickens. I only use one kind of flour when I make a biscuit. Southern food there's so much gluten in the biscuits, in the fried chicken, and in the mac and cheese. You just don't eat a lot of it. I love olive oil and I fry my chicken in olive oil. I refuse to fry in peanut oil and lard. It's all about balance and moderation. You just don't eat it every day.

Easier said than done, Art. Especially if you're the one doing the cooking.

For more info on LYFE Kitchens across the country, you can visit their site.