Top Chef: Dell Smith

Dell is the great-nephew of Leottis “Lee” Barnett, the namesake of Lee’s Coffee & Tea. Before moving to Laurel, Dell lived in Texas and Arizona, where he developed a great appreciation for fine craft coffee and beer and honed his skills making both at home. Missing the coffee culture to which he had become accustomed, Dell saw an opportunity to help build one in the growing downtown Laurel district. The stars aligned, and he found himself in charge of one of the staples of the community. He is excited about what the future holds for both Laurel and Lee’s, and he plans to pursue his Q Taster’s certification (like a sommelier for coffee) and eventually start roasting coffee in-house. Outside of Lee’s, Dell is adjunct faculty at Southern Miss, teaching music theory, and he plays keyboards in two local bands, Midnight Revel and Down & Good.

What’s one ingredient that you can't live without?

Garlic; I use it in pretty much everything I make.

What’s your favorite type of music to listen to when cooking?

Funk. My sister got me this awesome vinyl called Funky Chicken that’s full of Belgian grooves from the ’70s, and I love to spin that while baking or cooking or making pour over coffee. 

If you could cook for anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? 

I think it would be hilarious to cook for Gordon Ramsay and just get lambasted (and maybe learn something, too)!

What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had from a diner?  

High-end specialty coffee is like fine wine and has suggested tasting notes for subtle aspects of the coffee aromas/flavors. I have patrons come in all the time and tell me they just want “plain” coffee. It’s a pretty interesting thing to try to explain to them that that’s all I serve!

What’s the best part about being a chef? 

When a patron comes to me and tells me that was the best fill-in-the-blank they’ve ever had, it’s so rewarding. 

What’s the most challenging part of being a chef?

Balancing my personal perspectives on food ethics with the needs and desires of my community. I love locally sourced, sustainably grown foods, and I would use them exclusively if I could. 

If not a chef in the Pine Belt, what city would you like to work in?

Denton, Texas. It’s got an awesome all-around culture, and I would just love being there.

Who is/was your food mentor? 

My Aunt Lee, who started Lee’s Coffee & Tea. Many of our recipes come directly from her, and I grew up eating the food she made. I want everything we do to carry on that tradition and remember where we came from.

What’s your favorite food to cook?

Italian, burgers and dogs.

Sweet or savory?


Mild or spicy?

I don’t think you can really live in Texas for 8 years and not grow to love spicy foods.

Wine or beer?

Craft beer (particularly Saisons)

Salt or pepper?

Salt. It’s the spice of life, after all.

Red beans or gumbo? 

Can’t live without either.