How chef Art Smith lost 70 pounds during quarantine

Oprah's former chef lost 70 pounds in less than three months.
NBC/Art Smith
/ Source: TODAY

Chef Art Smith always wanted to lose weight but never thought it would happen by being unexpectedly quarantined with a professional athlete.

Rugby player and trainer Lucas Cancelier was on his way from Spain, where he plays for the Universidad Católica de Valencia, back home to Argentina, when he stopped for a visit with friends, Smith, his husband, Jesus Salgueiro, and their four children in Jasper, Florida. Little did they know, the brief stay would turn into a months-long quarantine that served as the very catalyst Smith needed to lose weight and change his life.

Smith lost 70 pounds in less than three months while quarantined with a family friend and professional athlete.Art Smith

Smith, who owns a handful of southern-style restaurants around the country, has authored four cookbooks, won "Top Chef Masters" and served as Oprah Winfrey's personal chef for years, has dedicated his life to food. A connoisseur of fluffy biscuits, cakes and fried chicken, Smith's success was based on his beautifully rich dishes. But sometimes, his craft consumed him and led him to a less-than-healthy lifestyle — and he was tired of it.

"When you go into a restaurant and see a chef that looks heavy or sloppy, what do you think? You'd maybe think that the food is going to be heavy and sloppy," Smith, who weighed 330 pounds in February, told TODAY Food. "I think this affects everything. You have to be good to yourself and take care of yourself to be a good businessperson."

It wasn't Smith's intention to utilize the 26-year-old athlete's personal training skills, but after confiding in Cancelier that he had been really struggling with his weight after recently turning 60, they decided to go for it.

Cancelier encouraged his friend to set a goal of losing 30 pounds. In less than three months, Smith has lost 70.

This isn't the first time Smith has had a major weight transformation. In 2008, he weighed around 324 pounds and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He used his diagnosis as a wake-up call, and by 2011, he had run two marathons and lost nearly 120 pounds. Since then, he has struggled to keep the weight off — but now he's making his health a priority again.

"[Cancelier] said, 'Let's try something!' He put together an exercise routine for me. We ran to the sporting goods store and got some simple things like a yoga mat. And when nobody could go to the gym, we started running on railroad tracks turned into a walking path," Smith said. "People never thought they could train in their house but it's really so easy."

So, what are some simple steps to follow in Smith's footsteps? According to Cancelier, it's important to keep a balanced routine in which you still can eat the food you enjoy. He advises cutting out processed sugars and limiting a sweet treat to a couple times a week rather than every night. Then, it's about developing a doable everyday workout you can learn to enjoy.

"If you want to enjoy eating, you have to enjoy train(ing). You train 30 minutes in your house and you can enjoy it. You make it normal," Cancelier, who began posting simple workout routines for all ages (in Spanish) on his Instagram, told TODAY. "A lot of people are scared about starting to exercise, so I'm trying to teach simple exercise(s). I do three or four workouts, each one is 4 to 6 minutes. If you don't finish one, no problem. And when you finish one, you can do the next one!"

For Smith, a daily routine involves a jog in the morning and a quick workout later in the day. Since he started, he feels happier, smiles more and was able to cope with the stress of managing his restaurants during the pandemic. Like many chefs and celebrities, Smith also began filming virtual cooking shows on Instagram (Cancelier mans the camera) and developed more confidence in his transformed body.

Lucas Cancelier and Art Smith working on an Instagram cooking demo showcasing great dishes and Smith's new, healthy self.Art Smith

"Who would ever think that a pro rugby player would get stuck with me and that he would change my whole life? He's more than a coach. He's a mentor," Smith said of Cancelier.

As Smith's restaurants begin to reopen, he plans to work with Cancelier, who also loves to cook, to revamp many of his menus to include healthy alternatives, like serving oven-baked chicken (inspired by Cancelier's mother's oven-baked Milanese) instead of fried. Smith hopes to inspire his employees and his customers with lighter dishes that are "just as delicious and tasty" — though he's vowed not to mess with the mac and cheese.