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June 01, 2011   Email to Friend 

Cooking for Alabama's First Family
Debra Davis

Chef Jim Smith.
When chef Jim Smith plans a meal for Gov. Robert Bentley and First Lady Dianne Bentley, he's like an artist who takes color to canvas to create a masterpiece. Using the copious variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and locally grown meats available in Alabama, he treats each meal for Alabama's first family as a one-of-a-kind work of art.

Although Mrs. Bentley said she was responsible for preparing the meals for her family before her husband was elected governor, she said when she moved to Montgomery she knew her time would be limited for cooking. Mrs. Bentley said Jim cooks many of their favorite foods, but makes them different by preparing them in new ways.

"I worked hard as a culinary professional for years, and it was a big move to leave the restaurant business," said Smith, 33. He first met the Bentleys through his wife, Angi, who worked as Gov. Bentley's campaign manager.

Mrs. Bentley first asked Smith for advice of what she could expect regarding meals and entertainment at the mansion. From there, their relationship grew and he eventually applied for and was hired as chef after going through an extensive interview process.

But Smith's career really began when he was still a teenager in Troy, Ala.

"I started working in a restaurant when I was 15 because I thought it would be a lot of fun. When I decided to make it my career, I made up my mind that I would go into the nicest restaurant I could find and try to get a job there."

That first job was as a bus boy at Bottega, an upscale Italian restaurant in Birmingham. Before long, he moved up in the business to waiter and bartender.

"That gave me a passion for food and steered me into the kitchen," he said. "I worked there four-and-a-half years, and I learned something new every day."

After his experience at Bottega, he went to culinary school and later worked at Dyron's Lowcountry in Mountain Brook.

"Each job I had helped make me a better chef," he said. "I can look at every aspect of the meal from taking the order, cooking it, serving it and cleaning up the dishes."

So the Bentleys' invitation to serve as chef of the governor's mansion combined just the right ingredients for Smith to leave the restaurant business.

"My job is mostly Monday through Friday, depending on the governor's schedule," Smith said. "I usually prepare lunch for eight to 10 people every day. That includes the governor, first lady and the staff here. I also take care of meals or food for parties or receptions held here at the mansion. That can range from hors d'oeuvres to a seated meal for 30 people."

Mrs. Bentley usually leaves the menu up to Smith, he said, but if she requests something special he's happy to oblige.

"The Bentleys love shrimp - and we serve Gulf shrimp," he said. "And we buy as much of the fruits and vegetables as we can from local farmers."

His pantry also includes items such as fresh ground corn meal and flour from local granaries. Smith said he tries to get to know the local farmers and fishermen who grew or caught the food he is preparing.

"Fresh ingredients are so important when you're preparing any meal," he said. "Having good ingredients can help you overcome a lot, even when your skill level is a challenge. And when people ask me the secret to being a good cook, I tell them not to be afraid of trying something new."

Making something new is one of the things that Smith is good at. Since he began his job as mansion chef in January, he hasn't prepared the same meal twice.

"I have developed a lot of my own recipes over the years," he said. "When I look at....say a rack of lamb, I may look at dozens of recipes and see what all they have in common. Then I might take a little from each of them to make my own recipe."

As for the first family's favorite dish, Smith said he's not sure.

"Sometimes the governor will say to me, 'Jim, this is the best thing you've ever made,'" Smith said. "I know they love shrimp, so I do prepare a lot of dishes using Gulf shrimp. The Bentleys are some of the nicest, most caring and thoughtful people you could ever work for."

A special ingredient Smith has for most every dish prepared at the governor's mansion is the "spice" added by his assistant, Sarah Crosby, who has worked at the mansion for 17 years. She began her career there with former Gov. Fob James, worked through the term of former Gov. Don Siegelman and two years for former Gov. Bob Riley.

"She knows where every dish, fork, spoon, glass and serving piece is in this place," Smith said motioning around the large kitchen. "And she is a wonderful server and is so hospitable. She makes everyone feel right at home here."

So what does a top chef do when he's not cooking meals for dignitaries?

"I enjoy eating out and going to different restaurants," he said. "I like to see what other chefs do and to try different things. At least two times a week, I try to cook for my wife. She deserves it and I especially love cooking for her."



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