A Style All Her Own

From expanding her product line to working on her TV show, B. Smith has made a name for herself.

September 22, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Glamorous even in denim, B. Smith plumbs the crustacean mysteries of Bo Brooks' kitchen in Canton.

Powdered for prime time, Chris Hannan, manager of the family-owned restaurant, explains to Smith the difference in taste between jimmies and females, while a glistening pile of large blue crabs wriggle on a stainless steel counter.

Entering its sixth season, the half-hour, syndicated show, B. Smith with Style, has come to Baltimore on a brilliant late summer day to discover one of the city's most telegenic commodities.

A crew of about a dozen crams into the kitchen, while Smith coyly, but unsuccessfully, tries to pry from Hannan his top-secret spice mix.

"I personally use Old Bay seasoning and a few other things," she says, rather coquettishly.

Hannan more willingly discusses how to steam hundreds of dozens of crabs at once, and tuck them neatly and safely into a pot of "juice."

"Cut!" director Leslie McNeil shouts repeatedly during the four-hour shoot when lines are flubbed, or there's a better shot to take or question to ask. After Hannan says that crabs are done when they smell a certain way, she asks him to describe that smell. "I don't have the faintest idea how to explain that one," he says.

In such ways, the relatively simple procedure of steaming crabs is broken down into a zillion particles, which will then be edited back together in a simulation of reality. It's a tedious process requiring enormous tolerance for down time, repetition and spouting obvious sound bites.

But "the boss," as the crew calls her, stays cool in the midst of the maelstrom. Barbara Smith's presence, in fact, lends this exercise in artifice its one element of authenticity. And therein lies the genius of this particular brand- marketing juggernaut.

Smith, a 52-year-old former fashion model with restaurants in Washington, Manhattan and the Hamptons, is steadily building a lifestyle business empire that is frequently compared - favorably - to that of a more notorious maven of gracious living.

Where Martha comes across as dictatorial, Smith is warm and intuitive, even as she brings the usual stuff - linen, Vogue patterns, wall coverings cookbooks, television, and soon, jewelry, perfume and cosmetics - to the global table.

Smith calls her approach "trans-cultural." She and the obligatory team of assistants glean and synthesize ideas from childhood, museums, cookbooks, international travels as well as trends in gardening, fashion and home design: A little Caribbean here, a little Italian there, add some Cajun catfish fingers and chitterlings in puff pastry, serve with Japanese sweet potatoes and before you know it, we are the world.

In that spirit, Smith's three restaurants are like children, she says. "They're from the same parents but have different personalities," she says. The New York place is "eclectic," Sag Harbor is seafood and D.C. is Cajun, Creole and Southern, she explains. Her two cookbooks, B. Smith's Entertaining and Cooking for Friends (Workman, $30) and B. Smith: Rituals & Celebrations (Random House, $35), reflect that culinary breadth as well.

That Smith is African American is largely incidental. While she clearly revels in the talents of black celebrities who appear on her show, including B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Wesley Snipes, race is not the defining element of Smith's casually gracious image. "She's amazing, " says husband Dan Gasby, co-producer of the television program and never far from his wife's side. "She's a groundbreaker who appeals to women in East Baltimore and to Park Avenue."

Even if she's following the same general lifestyle-marketing blueprint as Stewart, Chris Casson Madden, Christopher Lowell and others, Smith is a pioneer of sorts in her presentation of an affluent, cultured, multiracial world as a fait accompli, not as a pipe dream.

On air, Smith, who is stepmother to Gasby's teen daughter Dana, deliberately traipses through diverse communities where she meets experts from a wide range of backgrounds. During a program shot in Brooklyn, she appears genuinely delighted to be sampling olives, visiting boutiques and learning how to buy antiques.

Smith's own background is the stuff of lifestyle myth. She grew up outside of Pittsburgh in a loving blue-collar home. One biography reads like a cross between that of a 4H prodigy and Miss America contestant: "Barbara was an intellectually curious youngster, had a paper route, produced local fundraising events, volunteered at the local hospital and excelled in sewing and home economics. After finishing high school, she moved to Pittsburgh and became the first African-American ground hostess for TWA while attempting to break into modeling."

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