Dan Smith is the executive chef and co-owner of comfort-food restaurants Hearty and HB as well as The Hearty Boys catering company in Chicago with partner Steve McDonagh. “The Hearty Boys” are also the authors of Talk with Your Mouth Full, and as original winners of the “Search for the Next Food Network Star” in 2005, they are the hosts of “Party Line with the Hearty Boys” on the popular TV station. Their recipes and entertaining advice has been featured in such national food publications as Life magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Chicago Magazine, Glamour, Real Simple, Crain’s and others.
FE&S: What influence did food have on your childhood?
Dan Smith: Food was a huge influence in my childhood. Our family bonded around the dinner table. Any important occasion — from holiday meals to christenings to funerals — everything centered on the meal.
FE&S: What is one of your first food memories?
Dan Smith: Being in my Italian grandmother’s kitchen with a table the size of a football field, homemade pizza with a yeasty dough, pastina with butter and lots of cheese, and Biscotti dunked in sweet coffee milk.
FE&S: Are there any foods from your childhood you recreate to this day?
Dan Smith: Definitely. That’s the whole concept and inspiration behind Hearty. Tuna noodle casserole, Beef-a-Roni, fish sticks. I’m always looking to recreate those iconic dishes of childhood but with a grown-up twist.
FE&S: Did you have another career before foodservice?
Dan Smith: I was an actor in New York City. I worked with Circle Rep, one of the big repertory theaters in the city at the time. Also, I did some soap opera work and worked as a model in print and on the runway.
FE&S: What was one of your first jobs?
Dan Smith: For a short time between high school and college I sold a make up in department stores called Rubiglo. I hated every second of it, was never trained to do it and watched the clock obsessively every second I was there.
FE&S: Who was your mentor in foodservice?
Dan Smith: Probably Francine Maroukian. She taught me a lot about food but also a lot about running a successful business.
FE&S: What were some of the important lessons you learned from your least favorite boss when it comes to working with staff?
Dan Smith: Never scream at your employees. Treat people with respect. And never throw things. Constant communication and scheduled meetings are the best way I’ve found to learn from each other and keep everyone on the same page. Staying organized is important — I always tell my cooks to organize their station based on the dish, and group everything that might be needed for one dish together during service.