Have you ever met one of those people who has always known what they wanted to be? Even before they thought they knew?
Chef Zachary Smith, who could probably catch a squirrel and fry it up just right, is one of those. As the old saying goes, the man can ‘burn’. Then again, saying that Smith can burn doesn’t quite do justice to the man’s awesome skills and training. He is, quite legitimately, one of the finest cooks in the country.
Smith remembers watching his mother cook from his place at the dining room table when he was just a youngster, and it was from that time when ideas started to percolate in his mind about how much he wanted to try his hand in the kitchen. Just to see if he could do it too.
“I guess at a young age I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef, but my mom and my grandmom was a very good cook, my father’s mom and my mom was a very good cook. And we grew up in the projects not very far from here, the Jeffries projects.”
Smith laughed as he recalled an episode when he and his siblings were trying to cook some eggs at home and his mother came home. He had thrown them out because they had become brown, but his mother immediately asked “Who threw out these good eggs?”. Smith confessed, saying he had tossed them out because he thought the eggs were burnt. His mother said, “Just because these eggs are brown doesn’t mean they’re burnt,” however “I think it’s great that you guys are cooking.”
“By the time I was 9, I could cook all the things that my aunts and my grandmamas could cook. My grandmother was showing me a lot of stuff on the weekends, starting out with deserts. Banana pudding and stuff. When our moms got together before Thanksgiving, or any holiday they were gonna cook, then they’d be in the kitchen cooking and all the kids would be in the kitchen playing. I was the oldest so I’d go in the kitchen with all of them and cook with them. …Every Sunday, every holiday the family would get together, and “we’d have a big feast.”
As Smith grew into adulthood and began honing his skills to perfection, he eventually moved to the west coast where he spent nearly two decades as an in-demand chef leading kitchens at top flight hotel restaurants in San Francisco, Carmel and San Mateo, as well as in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. According to Smith, at the time he and another chef who worked at Disney World, Johnny Rivers, were the only two African Americans officially ranked as executive chefs in the entire country.
About 20 years ago, he returned to Detroit to work as head chef at Grosse Pointe’s 123, a top shelf eatery where he gained rave reviews from customers as well as tough critics such as Molly Abraham who at the time worked for the Detroit Free Press. Sometimes he would change the menu as often as every day. Smith also developed a line of spices, still on the market, and for a short while briefly headed up his own restaurant, Chef Zachary Café, in the Michigan Building on Bagley downtown. He also moved to Atlanta for awhile before again returning to the Motor City.
Over the years Smith has won numerous awards and received recognition from some of the most prestigious culinary societies for his accomplishments.
From his website:
“Smith is professionally trained in French, California, Italian, Mexican, German, Contemporary American, Asian, and Cajun cuisines. He has worked in world class hotels, banquette rooms, done catering, special events, and he currently owns the company Chef Zachary Gourmet Spices, a gourmet line of unique spice blends. He has over 50 years of professional cooking experience with the world’s finest foods and classic recipes in leading hotels and kitchens.
“In 1993 he started and currently continues as owner of Chef Zachary Gourmet Spice Company. The company manufactures, bottles, and distributes nationwide a unique line of custom spice blends developed throughout his years of hands-on industry experience. His was the first line to be 100% Heart Healthy, salt-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, and without fillers. The products were first sold in Michigan and soon sales expanded to the finest specialty stores and markets throughout the country, from New York to California, and everywhere in between.”