Valley-based chef Lawrence Smith III has always been competitive.

“I have been an athlete my whole life,” Smith says. “Growing up, I played as many sports as we could afford: baseball, basketball, track, wrestling, lifting, and my first love — football.”

Smith excelled so much at sports that his athletic prowess earned him a football scholarship to the University of Akron. But he didn’t stop there.

“My career continued through college,” Smith says, “culminating when I signed my dream into reality, an NFL contract to join the Indianapolis Colts.”

Now, Smith has turned his attention to another competitive arena: food. He is bringing his unique Chilté Tacos to the Mesa Farmers Market in Pioneer Park on Saturdays. AZ Big Media talked with Smith about his creative — and competitive — approach to cooking.

Chef Lawrence Smith III’s barbacoa tacos with salsa chicatana.

AZ Big Media: Which of your dishes will you be selling at the Mesa Farmers Market?

Lawrence Smith III: Modern tacos with a monochromatic palette, and unique flavors rooted in tradition. In this modern age, food must be “Instagram-able.” But with that, we won’t compromise flavor or quality, ever. As we grow, we will continue to curate local flavors and producers to partner with, always striving to bring you elevated, unique, and picture-worthy tacos.

AZB: How did you develop your distinctive tacos?

LS: After checking out local markets and surprisingly not finding taco vendors, I wanted to bring my spin to the market. Fortunately, I was able to travel to Mexico pre-pandemic. Excitedly exploring the cities of Sinaloa through food and graciously experiencing the culture with the most welcoming and loving people. Tacos are naturally an uncomplicated concept, highly customizable, and a delicious, healthy option — lean protein, no gluten, and veggie garnishes. Simply put, it came from the love of tacos.  

AZB: How does your athletic background impact your work as a chef?

LS: As with a lot of athletes who don’t get to go out on their own terms, my athletic career came to an end and I struggled to transition back into civilian life. I was undoubtedly lost with no career direction. Looking back at it, my dad was a chef for many years before switching careers. I think food has always been in my blood, although I didn’t really realize it. That’s when I decided to go to culinary school. Structure, competition, self-motivation, overcoming adversity, teamwork — all things I learned in football. Every recipe is a film session taught by your chef (coach), every ticket is a play to be called by the expo (quarterback) and executed by the cooks (skilled players). I went through culinary training camp, learning the intangibles in top kitchens around the Valley under chefs such as Beau Macmillan (personality), Alex Stratta (technique), and Rene Andrade (heart). I’ve been coached my whole life and although this is a small step, it’s my step to take and I couldn’t be more excited.

AZB: What do you want people to take away from the Chilté experience?

LS: There’s no right or wrong reason to cook and every cook has theirs. For me, I want people to feel the love, the culture of gathering and sharing new moments that stem from old memories. To experience the feeling when you smell or taste something and it instantly transports you. For me, that specific smell is cherry pie. Just for a moment, time is suspended in the air, my ears deafen, I feel the warm sun on my skin as the memory of picking cherries in the backyard and baking pies with my mom flashes by. That daydream feeling is what inspires me.