Fourteen years ago, B. Smith wasn’t looking to launch a new restaurant.
But as a restaurateur, cookbook author and lifestyle ace with two dining hot spots already under her belt—one in Manhattan and another in Washington, D.C.—she said she couldn’t resist when an opportunity presented itself on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, and the African-American pioneer pounced.
“The Sag Harbor menu was easy because we’re by the bay,” said Ms. Smith, taking a sip of chai tea on Wednesday, May 4, at her B. Smith restaurant in Manhattan after starring in a matinee show of the off-Broadway play, “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” her most recent endeavor.
“Marina, seafood, summer food, fun food, big cocktails,” she continued. “It’s really fun when it’s warm and the doors are wide open. All of the restaurants, the menus, are like children from the same parent with different personalities.”
Yet opening the restaurant wasn’t as simple as Ms. Smith and her husband, Dan Gasby, originally thought, the couple said.
“You know how many people told us when we opened that we would never do business out there?” Mr. Gasby said. “They told us that. ‘Don’t open,’ they said. ‘You’ll never make it. There’s no black businesses out there.’”
He leaned back in his chair and pointed with his left finger to his skin.
“All because of that.”
After more than a dozen years in the village, Mr. Gasby reported that he and his wife are doing just fine in Sag Harbor. He added that one of the reasons the restaurant venture here on the East End has done so well is because of the welcoming air at the bistro.
“We rock, but we rock in a kid-friendly way. There’s no ego. That attitude of, ‘Give me your money and get the hell out.’ There’s none of that. And what’s more, it has my wife’s touch. She’s a woman’s woman who makes people feel comfortable, and if you look at the number of firsts she’s accomplished, it’s pretty impressive.”
Just to list a few accomplishments, Ms. Smith is the first African-American woman to be featured on the cover of Mademoiselle fashion magazine, to have a national lifestyle brand, to have a nationally syndicated television lifestyle show and to be on the board of directors of the Culinary Institute of America. Today, her face can be seen on Betty Crocker and Pillsbury products and, in addition to a recent TV commercial for Mercedes-Benz, she currently serves as spokesperson for Colgate Palmolive Oxy products, and in the past, also for McCormick’s Lawry seasonings.
On April 27, Ms. Smith returned to her roots and joined the cast of “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” which uses clothing and accessories as triggers to tell funny, and often poignant, stories. Her run alongside Anne Meara, Conchata Ferrell, AnnaLynne McCord and Minka Kelly will conclude on Sunday, May 29.
Talking about her off-Broadway turn, Ms. Smith, who modeled and worked in commercials in her youth, said that she has enjoyed trodding the boards with the other actors in the play.
“It’s fun, it’s a lot of fun,” Ms. Smith said. “It’s a great cast.”
But fun aside, acting can be nerve-wracking, if not for Ms. Smith, at least for her husband.
“I sit back there and get nervous, watching,” Mr. Gasby chimed in.
“He’s like a nervous dad,” Ms. Smith laughed. “A nervous husband. I was asked to do it and theater was my first love. I studied theater and did lots of commercials. At the time, I didn’t think of it as my moneymaker. You know if you’re going to break or not.”
Instead, Ms. Smith, whose birth name is Barbara, broke ground in the modeling industry at a time when African-American women weren’t gracing glossy magazines pages and runways across the world.
“It was a dream, a dream come true,” she recalled.
Once she embarked on her lifestyle concept, the entrepreneur’s empire soon grew into a home collection, which debuted at Bed, Bath & Beyond 10 years ago, and a series of tabletop books on entertaining and cooking, which helped launch her nationally syndicated lifetime television show, “B. Smith with Style,” which aired on NBC stations in 40 countries.
Mr. Gasby reported that he has helped his wife manage her brand along the way, while trying not to step on her toes.
“When I was pitching the show to this guy at Warner Brothers, I told him it was one part cooking but it’s not a cooking show. It would have entertaining tips and ideas, but it’s not an entertaining or style show, and that it would even have some gardening and how-to-take-care-of-yourself tips,” Mr. Gasby said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What the f–k is the show?’ and I said, ‘It’s Martha Stewart with rhythm,’ and he said, ‘The black Martha Stewart! Perfect!’”
Ms. Smith said she is well-acquainted with the comparison, but ultimately, she is just glad to be noticed and to have survived in the industry for so long.
“When people say I’m the African-American Martha Stewart, I know what they’re talking about,” she said. “We do similar things. I would like people to think of me, period. I’m fine with it. She had the TV show, she was cooking and doing all of those sorts of things.”
Ms. Smith’s motto is, “Whatever you do, do it with style.” Sometime in the future, she said, she will visit Africa for the first time to help children in need. Mr. Gasby said the couple is also working on a new television show and her jewelry collection will be distributed in Sam’s Clubs across the country by the end of the year.
When there’s a free moment for the pair, they said they like to get out to their home in Sag Harbor to bike, run, visit the beach and some of their favorites hot spots, including Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton, the American Hotel in Sag Harbor and Bobby Van’s in Bridgehampton.
The secret to their successful life together is simple, Mr. Gasby said.
“We’re a great couple. We like each other. You’ve got to like each other, not just love each other,” Mr. Gasby said. “She’s the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life and we’ve had to overcome a lot.”
At 61, Ms. Smith is just as strong a role model today as she was during her runway days. While she was walking down the stairs at her restaurant, a fan approached Ms. Smith and tapped her on the shoulder with her right hand, clutching her portfolio and one of Ms. Smith’s books with her left.
The woman introduced herself to Ms. Smith as Amnau Eele. “You’re the reason I became a model,” she gasped. “When I was a girl, I had your photos on my bedroom walls.”
“Oh, you’re absolutely beautiful,” Ms. Smith soothingly responded, flipping through Ms. Eele’s photos, which have appeared in Paris Vogue. “I remember seeing these.”
Upon hearing that compliment, Ms. Eele burst into tears.
“Just seeing her, I was so overwhelmed,” Ms. Eele, of Manhattan, said during a telephone interview the next day. “Imagine you meet your idol. You meet someone you looked up to your whole life and then she’s just coming down the steps. That woman is the pinnacle, a pioneer and I’m very happy to say she’s my inspiration.”