Profiles in Now-ness: Celebrity Chef Arturo Chien-Mbutu Smith

pin_arturo.jpgWhen I first meet Arturo Chien-Mbutu Smith, he is inspecting the pint glasses in the bar of Mlegantinho, the restaurant that catapulted him to fame as New York’s hottest celebrity chef. He is weighing each vessel on a highly sensitive digital scale that can measure up to one-ten-thousandth of a pound. He does this twice for each glass: once while completely empty, once containing a single yellow feather, freshly plucked from a somewhat noisy and reluctant duck waiting in a cage nearby.

The reason? He suspects his supplier may have tried to pass off some sub-par glassware on him, and this method is the only way to find out. The glasses all look the same to the untrained eye, so I ask why he bothers with this elaborate ritual involving waterfowl.

“I never do things the easy way,” he says, with a sly grin.

If Arturo’s glass-inspection process doesn’t make this obvious, then his career path certainly does. Rather than attend a prestigious cooking school, he was determined to become a famous chef by studying medieval literature at Bard. Did he learn any valuable techniques for preparation or presentation in, say, Le Chanson du Roland?

“No, absolutely not,” Arturo says, in between feather plucks, “and that’s the whole point.”

Most aspiring chefs try to work their way up from menial kitchen positions, but not Arturo. Fresh out of school, he decided to start his own restaurant. Gathering investors from family friends, college buddies, and the Craigslist Random Encounters page, he accumulated enough capital to make his dream a reality. But it didn’t take long for that dream to turn into a nightmare.

The restaurant, Chill!, opened to mixed reviews. Most of the criticism was leveled at its location on the Ross Ice Shelf. The expense involved in transporting food to the South Pole kept customers away, as did the fact that visiting Chill! required a snowmobile and at least $600 of snowgear. The bad press, combined with a lack of foot traffic and rampant cases of gangrene among the kitchen help, doomed Arturo’s vision.

But the closing of Chill only compounded his problems. There was the small matter of his creditors, who testified that Arturo never told them he planned on building an Antarctic restaurant. Frank Derwood, the Chase Bank official who approved the loan request, insisted Arturo’s paperwork was for a barbershop in Weehawken.

Arturo also faced many lawsuits from ex-sous chefs who blamed him for their amputated, gangrenous limbs. Still, he refused to blame polar temperatures or frostbite for his failure.

“If anyone was in the wrong place, it was me,” he says, with a sage nod of the head. “I was still running from myself, and I didn’t even know it.”

After several years of meditation and reflection in an undisclosed location without extradition treaties, Arturo knew what he had to do: open a new restaurant in New York dedicated to serving the unique cuisine of his Copranesian forefathers.

“You see, the Copranesians, we are passionate about our food,” he says. “That’s what sets us apart from all other ethnic groups. I can still see my dear mother, toiling away at the mswioq, grinding it with her precious fhiuta, just to make us three ounces of klazhnaka for dinner. I would bring that passion to New York or be injured trying.”

Like all artists, Arturo had many obstacles to overcome. Copranesian food had never taken off in New York, or gotten a foothold of any kind, or ever been heard of, actually. There were also charges that Copranesia was not an actual country or culture.

“My people have had to struggle against this prejudice throughout history,” Arturo says. “Just because something does not exist on a map, does that mean it does exist in the soul? Are certain people imaginary just because there is absolutely no evidence that they exist?”

Mlegantinho opened to almost universal rave reviews. It has become so popular that it no longer takes reservations. Instead, invitations are inserted into random copies of The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic Monthly.

He is not without his detractors, however. Some critics debate the validity of Copranesian cuisine, a stance that infuriates Arturo. “When they say such things, it is like they have raped the corpses of all of my ancestors. And if they say such things to my face, I will not hesitate to stab them with a cleaver right in their corpse-raping balls!”

Such threats haven’t stopped critics like The New York Times‘ Frank Bruni from raising objections to Arturo’s cooking. “My first time at Mlegantinho, I ordered something called sxivtlaka,” Bruni wrote in his review, “and it tasted exactly like pork lo mein to me. It even came in an aluminum take-out tray. The waiter recommended a vintage ‘Copranesian’ wine, but I swear it was just Hi-C fruit punch with some vinegar thrown in.”

Arturo’s defenders counter that Frank Bruni is fat and smelly. Arturo himself has nothing to say to Bruni, but does share some wisdom from the old country. “There is a saying in Copranesian: Af ghaqtla perb secilas, frop jastla la xer-vaina.”

I ask if Arturo can translate that into English.

“No, not a single word.”