How a gluten intolerance changed the course of Chattanooga chef Blackwell Smith's culinary life

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Blackwell Smith with a potato and wild rice casserole with a bechamel sauce at his home on Lookout Mountain.

Blackwell Smith made his name in Chattanooga with a couple of restaurants.

A Chattanooga native, he graduated from the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana with a degree in the culinary arts and lived in Sonoma County, California, for a few years before returning to his hometown. He worked in the Bluff View Art District before opening his own restaurant, Caffeine, on M.L King Boulevard. It was a popular spot for several years before he closed that restaurant and opened Blacksmith's Bistro and Bar in St. Elmo.

He and wife Kelly operated Blacksmith's for several years, specializing in burgers, salads and brunch, but that eatery also closed. The decision was based on "money, lack of satisfaction, quality of life, frustration - typical reasons for any business closing," he says.

He's still involved in food, but maybe not in the way he expected. Several years ago, he discovered he has a gluten intolerance, and that set his life on a new course. He is now bringing awareness to and teaching those with food sensitivities how to eat and feel better through classes on his website, blackwellsmithiv.mastermind.com/masterminds/25669.

"Gluten-free cooking is hard," he says on his website. "It's even harder when you don't know where to start. Tackling the gluten-free diet with curiosity, creativity and confidence is my approach."

Here he answers questions from the Times Free Press about his culinary journey.

Q: How did you discover you had a gluten intolerance?

A: So I had been feeling kind of crappy and was really tired, bloated and sore. One day I ate a sandwich, and I knew something was wrong. My ears started ringing, I couldn't think, and my stomach was going crazy. I knew something was wrong. So I took many different potential allergens out of my diet, and I began feeling better. After that, I tested eating each allergen on its own to see if I had any reactions. Everything was going great until I had some wheat, and I was right back to the feelings I had before.

Q: So removing gluten from your diet made you feel better quickly. What other effects did it have on you?

A: My skin was softer, I could sleep better and I had less anxiety. Gluten-free is not a fad. Before it hit me, I wasn't convinced of it being that serious, and was I ever wrong.

Q: Who was the major influence in making a decision to pursue a culinary career?

A: My grandmother, Margaret Patten Smith. She was my first cooking teacher. I just kind of took to it.

Q: What's the first thing you remember cooking on your own?

A: I remember cooking beef liver with onions and Worcestershire on a rainy day in elementary school. The liver was from my grandparents' farm. I just cooked it. At that point, I may have heard someone talking about it. I don't remember having a recipe.

Q: What's your favorite thing to cook?

A: I really like French cooking. I like the methodology, and I think it helps simplify things. Unfortunately, people think the names are what make it fancy, but really it's not. So much of what we consider American foods are really French. Casseroles, omelettes, mayonnaise. The list goes on and on.

photo Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Blackwell Smith.

Q: What's your favorite cookbook?

A: "Escoffier" is probably my favorite. [This "Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery" is named for Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), a French chef, restaurateur and culinary writer who popularized and updated traditional French cooking methods.]

Q: What advice do you have for people who want to eliminate gluten from their diet?

A: Gluten is everywhere and in everything. I recommend people stop reading labels and cook food from scratch because it's easier than taking the risk. There are better gluten-free products on the market, but they are generally full of cheap carbs, fats, sugar and sodium. I wouldn't call that a solution, considering it causes other issues.

Q: Is it difficult to follow a gluten-free diet during the holidays?

A: Yes, you almost can't eat anything (store-bought). In this country, wheat is pretty cheap, so companies can buy this cheap wheat and turn it into additives. Many of these additives don't even have wheat or gluten in their names. It's almost impossible to eat gluten-free unless you cook from scratch or buy gluten-free products that have the gluten-free symbol on the label.

Q: What can people learn by watching your classes online?

A: I have video instructions and suggestions on how to cook gluten-free. The main course focuses on grilling. I love grilling and focus on having fun and trying new flavors.

Q: What are the downsides of going gluten-free?

A: There are a few things you just have to accept. Pizza will never be the same, but that doesn't mean gluten-free food has to be cursed. It is actually an opportunity to eat better. I am not saying I had that positive attitude going into this, but I realized I could still enjoy food.

Q: What piece of equipment is your best friend in the kitchen?

A: I like my food processor. It makes making pesto, purees, vinaigrettes, smoothies, milkshakes and cookie dough a cinch.

Q: What's something people don't know about you?

A: I love music. It feeds the body, mind and soul - just like food.

Q: Complete this sentence: If I had never become a chef I would be ...

A: Playing music.

Smith says learning to cook gluten-free is all about leaving starchy foods behind. "But those comfort foods are what you struggle with," he admits.

Here's one of his favorite recipes that is 100% gluten-free while providing a world of flavor. This is a good dish for entertaining and, says Smith, the bechamel sauce is good for many different dishes. For a delicious, gluten-free gravy, mix the sauce with turkey drippings.

Bechamel Wild Rice and Potatoes

photo Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Blackwell Smiths says this potato and wild rice casserole with bechamel sauce is gluten-free but has a world of flavor.

2 pounds Idaho potatoes

1 red onion

Fresh rosemary

Olive oil, as needed

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

1 cup wild rice

2 cups shredded nutty cheese, such as Gouda or Jarlsburg, divided

1 heaping tablespoon porcini powder (available on amazon.com)

Bechamel sauce:

1 quart whole milk

1 bay leaf

Pinch of fresh nutmeg

6 ounces butter

1/2 cup finely diced white onion

1/2 cup King Arthur gluten-free flour

Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Wash potatoes, cut in half and slice into thin half-moon slices; place in roasting pan. Cut onion into half-moon slices, and place in pan with potatoes. Add a small handful of fresh rosemary, roughly chopped. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast potatoes and onions till tender. When done, transfer to a large bowl.

Cook rice on stovetop following package instructions. The wild rice is best if not overcooked and split open. Drain rice, and add to bowl with potatoes, onions, 3 cups bechamel sauce (instructions follow), 1 cup of cheese and porcini powder. Stir to combine, then check seasonings.

Transfer mixture to a casserole dish, and cover with remaining cheese. Return to oven, and bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or until cheese is melted and dish is warm and bubbly. Cover with foil if it starts getting too brown.

To make bechamel sauce: Bring milk to a simmer; add bay leaf and nutmeg. Keep warm. In a second pan, melt butter. Add onions, and cook till tender; then add flour, and cook lightly. Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly to break up any lumps until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com or annebraly.com.

photo Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Blackwell Smith with a gluten-free potato and wild rice casserole with bechamel sauce.