How Gluten Intolerance Changed the Course of Chattanooga Chef Blackwell Smith’s Culinary Life

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Blackwell Smith has made a name for himself in Chattanooga with a few restaurants.

Originally from Chattanooga, he graduated from the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana with a Culinary Arts degree 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 ML King Boulevard. It was a popular spot for several years before he closed this restaurant and opened Blacksmith’s Bistro and Bar in St. Elmo.

He and his wife Kelly operated Blacksmith’s for several years, specializing in burgers, salads and brunch, but that restaurant also closed. The decision was based on “money, lack of satisfaction, quality of life, frustration – typical reasons for any business closure,” he says.

He’s still involved with the food, but maybe not like he expected. Several years ago, he discovered that he suffered from gluten intolerance, which gave a new direction to his life. He is now raising awareness and teaching people with food sensitivities how to eat and feel better through classes on his website, blackwellsmithiv.mastermind.com/masterminds/25669.

“Cooking gluten-free is difficult,” he says on his website. “It’s even more difficult when you don’t know where to start. Approaching 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 find out you had gluten intolerance?

A: So I felt a little shitty and I was really tired and bloated and sore. One day I ate a sandwich and knew something was wrong. My ears started to ring, I couldn’t think, and my stomach was going crazy. I knew something was wrong. So I removed many different potential allergens from my diet and started to feel better. After that, I tested by eating each allergen on its own to see if I had any reactions. Everything was fine until I had some wheat, and I was back to the feelings I had before.

Q: So removing gluten from your diet made you feel better fast. What other effects has this had on you?

A: My skin felt softer, I could sleep better, and had less anxiety. Gluten-free is not a fad. Before it hit me, I wasn’t convinced it was that bad, and I was never wrong.

Q: Who had the greatest influence on the decision to pursue a culinary career?

A: My grandmother, Margaret Patten Smith. She was my first cooking teacher. I just sort of took that.

Q: What’s the first thing you remember cooking for yourself?

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

Q: What’s your favorite thing to cook?

A: I really like French cuisine. I like the methodology, and I think it helps to simplify things. Sadly, people think the names are what makes it fancy, but they really aren’t. Much of what we think of as American food is truly French. Casseroles, omelets, mayonnaise. The list is lengthened increasingly.

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 would you give to people who want to eliminate gluten from their diet?

A: Gluten is everywhere and in everything. I recommend that people stop reading labels and cooking food from scratch because it’s easier than taking the risk. There are better gluten-free products on the market, but they’re usually loaded with cheap carbohydrates, fats, sugar, and sodium. I wouldn’t call it a solution, as it causes other problems.

Q: Is it difficult to follow a gluten-free diet while on vacation?

A: Yes, you can hardly eat anything (store bought). In this country, wheat is quite cheap, so companies can buy this cheap wheat and process it into additives. Many of these additives don’t even have wheat or gluten in their name. 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 from watching your online courses?

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 gluten free?

A: There are a few things you just have to accept. Pizza will never be the same again, but that doesn’t mean gluten-free foods have to be cursed. It is in fact the occasion to eat better. I’m not saying I had that positive attitude, but I realized that I can still enjoy food.

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

A: I love my food processor. It makes making pesto, purees, dressings, smoothies, milkshakes and cookie dough a snap.

Q: What don’t people know about you?

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

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

A: Play music.

Smith says learning to cook gluten-free is about leaving the starchy foods behind. “But these comfort foods are what you struggle with,” he admits.

Here is one of her favorite recipes which is 100% gluten free while offering a world of flavor. It’s a good dish for entertaining and, says Smith, bechamel sauce is good for many different dishes. For a delicious gluten-free sauce, mix the sauce with the turkey juice.

Béchamel Wild Rice and Potatoes

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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 of Idaho potatoes

1 red onion

Fresh rosemary

Olive oil, as needed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup of wild rice

2 cups grated nut cheese, such as Gouda or Jarlsburg, divided

1 heaped tablespoon of porcini powder (available on amazon.com)

Béchamel sauce:

1 liter of whole milk

1 bay leaf

Pinch of fresh nutmeg

6 ounces of butter

1/2 cup finely chopped white onion

1/2 cup King Arthur Gluten Free Flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Wash the potatoes, cut them in half and cut them into thin slices in half-moon; place in a roasting pan. Cut the onion into half-moon slices and put them in the pan with the potatoes. Add a small handful of coarsely chopped fresh rosemary. Mix with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast the potatoes and onions until tender. When finished, transfer to a large bowl.

Cook the rice on the stovetop, following the package directions. Wild rice is best if it is not overcooked and opened. Drain the rice and add to the bowl along with the potatoes, onions, 3 cups of béchamel sauce (instructions follow), 1 cup of cheese and porcini powder. Mix, then check the seasoning.

Transfer the mixture to a baking dish and cover with the remaining cheese. Return to oven and bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or until cheese is melted and dish is hot and bubbling. Cover with foil if it starts to get too brown.

To make the bechamel sauce: Boil the milk; add the bay leaf and nutmeg. Keep warm. In a second skillet, melt the butter. Add the onions and cook until tender; then add the flour and cook lightly. Slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly to break up any lumps until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat and season to taste with S&P. Remove the bay leaf.

Contact Anne Braly at [email protected] or annebraly.com.


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


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