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Lawrence Smith of Chilte went from the NFL to one of the best new restaurants in the U.S.

It’s time for the first edition of a new series here on The Show called Chef Talk, where we'll sit down with chefs of all stripes here in the Valley — from fine dining rooms to nightclub kitchens — and find out what makes them tick.

Today, meet Chef Lawrence Smith. He’s the man behind what Esquire and Bon Appetit both named one of the best new restaurants in the country last year: Chilte.

It’s a Mexican-inspired spot inside the Egyptian Motor Hotel on Grand Avenue. But, it began in a tent during the pandemic with Smith and his wife making tacos at farmers markets.

LAWRENCE SMITH: We were trying to find like traditional elements and we're trying to find other cultural elements that all kind of tie together and are really harmonious.

Smith didn’t start out as a chef. Far from it. He spent most of his life playing football. He had one goal: To make it to the NFL, which he did, very briefly, before finding his home in the culinary world.

He spoke with The Show about what he cooks when he’s at home and more.

Full interview

SMITH: Football was, is my first passion. It's what I did all growing up and it's just I stuck with it, stuck with it. Everything I, I was striving for was to make it to the NFL. I kind of decided that at a young age is what I wanted to do. So it was really easy to be so hyper-focused on that, for like 20 years, right. It made it really easy to make everything else in my life going towards that, that mission, right? Like my family supported me. How, how was I eating, was going towards that. How was I training, was going towards that.

Like, yeah, I didn't love school but I did it because the purpose was to have grades to be on the field to, to play. So that was really just like, that's my drive, it's my passion. I still love it. I still miss it. I was able to make my dream happen for a short moment after college. I played at University of Akron and I got a little, a little taste. So I got picked up by the Colts in 2015, which was amazing to play some football out there with the Colts training with the Ravens, I think during camp.

I was really short-lived, you know, there was a lot of injuries, some guys got hurt. I was a new guy, small school. So I, I got, you know, kicked out, and I just chased it around, kind of chased around the country trained in Colorado and LAA and when it's time to hang up to cleats, I ended up here in Phoenix.

You made it in, right. And then you end up here. What happened?

SMITH: It was kind of just time to go a different direction. Hang up to cleats, right. You start aging out. I didn't have an agent that I needed to have to represent me the right way, right? So just kind of seeing where I needed to go, needing to be able to support myself.

I just, I transitioned, I, I went and jumped into the office and I absolutely hated it. So I did like, I was like recruiting for tech firms, like staff recruiting, right for a few months, which it was cool. I got to learn a lot of like techie stuff and backend like security clearance stuff and coding and like Python which was really cool. I'm super interested in that, but sitting in that office like, trying to hit those numbers was just like, it just wasn't for me, right.

So I applied to "The Great Food Truck Race" and we made it to the finals of casting, like we made a little team and we made it to the finals of casting and that was kind of my first inkling of like, hey, like maybe this culinary thing is the fit for you, right. So I jumped into that. We made a finals of cast and I said, if we get in, we go do this. If we don't get in, I go to culinary school, like I quit this sh-t. Go to culinary school.

Didn't get in, quit that sh-t. Went to culinary school out in Scottsdale and it was just, it was a natural fit, you know, like all the symmetry of what football is to the kitchen, the team, the calling shots, the plays, the prep, the practice, you know, every day is a game day at the restaurant, but you get to kind of prep and practice before that. The camaraderie, the pressure. All that was like, really familiar to me. So it was a really natural fit for me to jump into and I really enjoyed it.

Had you always cooked like when you started "The Food Truck Race," like you were totally green to cooking or did you have a little, a little experience in your pocket?

SMITH: I mean, just a home cook, you know, like I have three siblings, all younger, mom and dad and it was just like, you know, we're running into sports games and to this and to that and cheer practice and that and I start hittin my mom was like, hey, can I have eggs? Can I have this and that? She's like, yo, if you need some special sports diet, you gotta start cooking it right. So, but I've always been in the kitchen, like, with my parents and stuff. So, you know, my dad was a cook, they cook at home. We'd always sit down for a family dinner. So it's always been there, like, you know, in the background and then I start cooking my little sports nutrition meals. And then I carried over into college, we'd always kind of have like cookouts and bring a potluck and, you know, cook and grill and do our little like multi team gatherings, which was super fun and everyone loved to do that. So it's always just been like kind of a thread like carrying through from thing to thing, which is why I think it was also such a natural progression and kind of where I landed.

So tell me about the sort of discovery of this when you go to culinary school and you kind of felt, it probably felt like home a little bit for the first time since having left football, which probably wasn't easy also.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, yeah, the sense of like team and purpose definitely felt so familiar and felt like home, felt comfortable and right, having executive chefs and teachers and professors and, and things that they're like in there with you doing it, you know, it's like an on field coach, was super familiar. Something I gravitated to something I can envision myself being I was like, I can get there. That's something I would want to do.

My dad's been an entrepreneur, like all growing up. So I was, had the entrepreneurial brain kind of in the works as well. So I was like, all right, I want to have my own stuff. It was really easy to kind of find that new hyper-focus and that new passion for that. The second career.

It's really interesting. Like, I've never thought of all the parallels there would be between like professional sports and cooking in a kitchen. But of course, it makes total sense when you put it that way. So you, you graduated from culinary school, you started working in restaurants here in the Valley. Some pretty high-end ones. Tell us about sort of landing here at Chilte and like the concept there.

SMITH: Yeah. So I was in culinary school second, I got out of basics. I was like, I need to jump in, right? Like, and I think that's one of the greatest things I did pull from culinary school was the basics. It is what helped me thrive and grow super fast, being able to apply the basic, then apply my drive, quick learning hustle, right? Sleeping in parking lots. Being able to just apply that grit that two a day grit to it really helped me like do like six years of work in three years, right?

I was able to jump in, I worked at fine dining Renee from Bacanora, he actually brought me back around. He said, dude, I'm gonna open up this kitchen in Tempe, Ghost Ranch. So I got to learn like the Mexican, the Southwest, like the Sonora Mexican, all that type of stuff is really, what started hitting home with me. And those flavors really resonated with me. They really read like, like soul food of the Southwest. Like I just understood it.

So that cuisine is why, what stuck with me, what drove me into Chilte eventually was like, all right, I'm gonna start with the taco shop, you know, on the street. Just kind of, I wanna build my own thing. I don't wanna always be under someone else's shadow. So when the pandemic hit, I had that base, you know, those few years of experience, that base stuff, I was able to apply it in. I started off just me and my wife in a grill jumping in during the pandemic at the farmers markets. Started Chilte. And we just really built it up bare bones, you know, no money in the account, 10 by 10 tent, one grill and a tortilla for us and we just try to make it work.

So we had a lot of days, no sales. And finally it caught on. Finally we got some traction and built it from there.

I mean, it's, it's quite a thing to take nothing and turn it into something. And now you're in this beautiful space at this hip hotel, you just got, you know, a big write up in Bon Appetit, like this has probably hit at a really interesting moment for you. Like, I'm sitting here with you at a big moment in your career, I'm hoping. What's this been like, this turn of late?

SMITH: It, it just feels really good. I mean, getting the recognition is nice. It's been a brutal, brutal summer. So, getting some people in the door is even more nice. Being able to continue to really just like, kind of keep our dream alive, right? Because yeah, the pride and the, the recognition of all the hard work as well and good and I love it and we do need that as well. But more so like what we started Chilte to do was to like, support our community more so being able to keep our people employed, pay them appropriately, keep our creative going is a lot more important. So that's what I'm really excited for.

All right. So final couple of questions for you ones I ask everyone we interview in this series. First of all, this is always a weird question for chefs. But what is in your refrigerator at ho like, what do you cook when you're not in the kitchen here at the restaurant?

SMITH: It's so tough because I don't eat, which is terrible. But let's see, at home usually it's like, it's really like simple stuff, right? Like, I usually like, keep a couple of salsas around. I keep like our salsa macha in there. I keep, just some, like random salsas. And then I'm usually like, and this comes from my football thing, like, because this is what I went home and ate last night was eggs and a tortilla and salsa. Like that's it. Or like eggs and toast and cottage cheese. Like, I just eat like the real simple quick things.

All right. And final question for you, tell us, you know, your favorite thing to cook on your menu right now. And you know, the inspiration behind it, I think.

SMITH: Well, our inspiration behind it is always kind of finding like a common like cultural, cross-cultural thread. I wouldn't ever call it fusion. It's always coming from like a Mexican Latin base as well as incorporating some of our street beginnings to it and some of like the modern, like little little twists and, and funk. A lot of the dishes resonate like that. And then we have a couple of fun ones that are a little more creative like the black pink, which is gonna be, you know, chocolate aguachile and shrimp. We're using like Argentinian prawns. So we have like element of fine dining to it.

We're doing a black chocolate aguachile. That's the black portion. The prawns are the pink portion. So cucumber, avocado, house tostada, a little local tallow aioli that we do. It's a little sweet, smooth, smoky spicy, citrus, you know, definitely a different riff on it, but it's a fun plate. And I came up with it in the test kitchen for "Chopped" because I was on a chocolate episode and I was like, I gotta get chocolate and shrimp together with garlic. Let's do it. So I just did that in the test kitchen. It was fun.

Not an easy task.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.