Why B. Smith Has Always Mattered
The outpouring of praise for the late restaurateur, entrepreneur, and style icon is much deserved, and long overdue.
Before there was Black Girl Magic, there was B. Smith. Barbara Elaine Smith, who died at the age of 70 on February 22, was grace personified. She built an empire with multiple restaurants, developed a home collection line, wrote books (including Rituals and Celebration, a 1999 Food & Wine Best New Cookbook), hosted a weekly TV show called B. Smith With Style. As the first Black woman to be on the cover of Mademoiselle in 1976, she broke barriers and created a conversation around everything she touched. After Smith's modeling career, she became a successful restaurateur, opening her first eponymous restaurant in 1986 on 8th Avenue and 47th street in Manhattan. She would eventually open two more locations in New York, and a third in Washington D.C. Smith’s years as a restaurateur also made her the first Black woman elected to the board of the Culinary Institute of America. She was a multi-faceted melanin dream and stylish as hell.
Like Leah Chase, Willie Mae Seaton, and Edna Lewis, Smith was an example of resilience and ingenuity in a professional climate that devalues the contributions of Black women. Often referred to as the "Black Martha Stewart" by predominantly white media, she proudly identified herself as a cook and recognized the history of Black women as the original domestic laborers of this country.
“Martha Stewart has presented herself doing the things domestics and African Americans have done for years,” Smith told New York Magazine in a 1997 interview. Her entrepreneurship was inspirational, but let’s be clear: it was also a necessity for survival in a food landscape riddled with misogyny and racism.
“At a time when there were very few Black celebrity chefs or cooks, she showed the world that not only were Black women to be taken seriously as food professionals, they were also ahead of the game as tastemakers," says Baltimore-based chef and artist Krystal Mack. "She is someone who has given a voice and face to Black women in food media, and quite frankly, many of us probably wouldn’t be where we are without her proven valuation of Black women in food media.”
In 2014, Smith was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Like the fierce and determined advocate she was, she immediately used her platform to destigmatize the disease and open up conversations around living with the illness. That same year, Smith closed the first of her NYC establishments, finally closing her flagship restaurant after 28 years of service. The restaurant closure was not related to her health, but an enormous increase in rent, according to her husband Dan Gasby. Almost three decades of service is a milestone for any restaurant, but especially within the New York City market where restaurants open and close on the daily, and opportunities for Black-owned full-service restaurants are limited.
It’s clear that the impact of B. Smith was broad as it was deep. Social media feeds were flooded with personal anecdotes and memories of the mogul. “B. Smith managed to pair unapologetic Black agency with a multidisciplinary media savvy that managed to reimagine black identity in food during an era when our industry was very much in flux," says culinary historian and chef Therese Nelson. "She affirmed so many of us with her grace and style, but it was her wholehearted belief in the power of our culture that marks the true measure of her legacy. B. Smith affirmed us just by being in space fully formed and her passing is a sobering reminder that we must each clearly and rigorously define our voices at all cost.”
But until her death, too little had been said—especially in the mainstream press—about Smith or her contributions to the food, publishing, and broadcast world, let alone the culture at large. For a woman who gave so much, it’s incredibly sad to see how quickly the world allowed her accomplishments to fade away, and lacked mentioning her on so many lists of people who have made a major impact on the culture. There's also the dismissiveness of limiting her work as helping women of color when the truth is that the labor of Black women benefits everyone, and the world has benefited from Smith’s vision. How we remember people is so important for creating access points for future generations, but also for giving us road maps to follow.
Serial entrepreneur and company founder Sevetri Wilson said, “When we lose an elder it’s like a library burned down.” She was speaking of the legendary chef Leah Chase when she wrote it, and the mourning of all the information lost when pioneers lay to rest. She’s right. I’m feeling a great sense of loss for all the stories never written, told, or archived about B. Smith. Our elders are the best keepers of history, so how we take care of them is a testament of how we contextualize the past and who stories get immortalized. Right now I can’t help but think of the missed opportunity to give Smith her flowers while she was still here. Why are Black women only acknowledged for their dynamism when they die? The matriarchs of our industry deserve our loud approval and love for them while they are here to enjoy it, so how will you tell them? Barbara Elaine Smith is a name we should not only know, but continue to honor. She, too, was our elder.