Vv Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Nicki Laborie, sits down with chef Michael Smith to chat family, Canada’s fear of food and his bucolic P.E.I. life.
On a sunny May morning, I stroll into the Fairmont Royal York to meet Food Network chef Michael Smith. And I have to admit — I’m anxious. If you’re not familiar with the superstar, think of a gentle, down-to-earth giant. Best known for his cooking shows The Inn Chef, Chef at Home, Chef at Large and Chef Abroad, Smith has also published more than eight books and is a regular judge on Chopped Canada. With a career that spans two decades, the Canadian media mogul works hard while maintaining a peaceful east-coast lifestyle in P.E.I.
The six-foot-seven chef greets me with a smile, but as we shake hands, I notice his normally calm energy is somewhat antsy. “I’m waiting for a call from my lawyers to find out if we closed on the purchase of the Inn at Bay Fortune.” Even though he’s in Toronto promoting a new dish detergent, Cascade Platinum, this is not a distraction he can easily put out of mind.
He tries anyway. We delve into conversation about the east coast lifestyle and how he encourages Canadians to not be afraid to get creative in the kitchen, which he is proud to call his life mission.
“It all started when I was 17 and had no clue what I wanted to do. So I bought a car and went to art school – isn’t that what we all do?” he laughs. “Of course, I soon realized art school wasn’t for me, but I still needed to pay for my new car. So like most of us do, I got a job in a restaurant.”
Fast-forward a decade later, an honours degree from the Culinary Institute of America and a few prestigious jobs abroad, Smith headed to P.E.I. to become head chef of the Inn at Bay Fortune — the very restaurant he’s anxiously checking his phone to find out if he now owns. Talk about coming full circle.
“My mission is to empower Canadian families to connect with an authentic food lifestyle. What I do is try and inspire families to connect with food.”
After becoming the Inn’s executive chef in 1991, the bucolic eatery soon became one of Canada’s leading restaurants, attracting a host of noteworthy guests. In 1998, the Inn’s kitchen was turned into a TV set when Smith launched The Inn Chef on the Food Network.
“The original idea for The Inn Chef was serendipitous. At that time we were trying everything under the sun and had the worlds most important people chartering jets just to come and eat with us. We were on top of the world and me, being an ideas guy, I had the crazy notion that we should turn this into a cooking show,” he says with a chuckle.
“I met Gretha Rose, who was looking to produce a TV show, and a few weeks later we were in production. Gretha was a huge part of why I’m here today. I was very lucky. She took me as a partner and not an entity.”
His gratitude is endearing and his passion is obvious. But he insists it wasn’t until his first son was born that he realized that he only knew fine dining. Suddenly it became clear that he would become a strong advocate of using fresh, local ingredients and teach Canadians about real food. He’s also changing his ethos at the Inn; rather than fine dining, Smith will now focus on family-style dinners. Picture seaside BBQ’s and pass-the-potato-salad lunches.
“My mission is to empower Canadian families to connect with an authentic food lifestyle. What I do is try and inspire families to connect with food. There’s so much complexity in the food business and it really doesn’t need to be that way.”
“This whole idea of perfection it’s ruinous – it puts people off. You’re looking for the wrong thing, the wrong standard.”
As Smith becomes more animated, I can see the aggravation he has against the major food companies.
“I have to admit, I went through a couple of angry years as I started to realize and recognize how busted up our food system is, how much big food corporations take advantage of average Canadians and how much it’s in their best interest to keep us off base and unsure of ourselves.”
His rage eventually subsided, leaving him with the clarity to focus on teaching people how to not be afraid of cooking.
“This whole idea of perfection it’s ruinous – it puts people off. You’re looking for the wrong thing, the wrong standard, and it just becomes another reason why people say they’re too busy to cook.”
As the spokesperson for dishwasher detergent Cascade Platinum, Smith is clearly media-trained; he moves our conversation smoothly into planning the perfect dinner party and how he’s partnered with Cascade to show Canadians they can do it, too.
As he speaks, I wonder if Cascade really is that good, or if he’s just another celebrity chef putting his name on a product. But as with food, he’s not playing.
“We were asked to create the stickiest, messiest, greasiest casserole for the Cascade dinner party video. I made a bacon potato casserole with tons of gooey cheese. After dinner we put the dirty casserole in the dishwasher without rinsing it. I was freaked out – cause it had to work! The next morning my daughter and I run down to the dishwasher and to our delight, the dish is clean as a whistle.”
Thank goodness. He delves into the various steps he follows when hosting a dinner party, but I can’t help but imagine myself tucking into a quaint family-style dinner at the Inn, Smith seated at the head of the table.
As we end the interview, Smith checks his phone to see if the lawyer called. Nada.
But one week later, I see the news: he got it. Michael Smith and his wife are the new owners of the Inn at Bay Fortune. It seems those BBQ’s on P.E.I. aren’t so far away after all.
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