The Food that Binds
It’s no surprise that what most grounds Chef Michael Smith focuses on food, family, friends and always an eye to the future
by Lindsay Ruck
Nutritional activist. Prince Edward Island’s food ambassador. Television host. Cookbook author. Inn proprietor. Chef Michael Smith has been called many things, but there’s one title he could do without. “I really feel disrespected when I’m tagged a celebrity chef. As if that’s all I’ve got. I spent 17 years in the trenches before I saw a camera.”
And the achievements are numerous. But as Michael, a New York City native who proudly calls Prince Edward Island (PEI) home, points out, he didn’t just come into this world with a camera in his face and multiple television deals with Food Network Canada waiting at his doorstep. “We’re surrounded by a culture of people famous for being famous. I worked for what I’ve achieved.”
Michael was born and raised in Mid-Hudson Valley in a town called New Windsor.When the time came for post-secondary education, he enrolled in art school only to discover he was not cut out for rapid deadlines.
“I fell prey to this ridiculous assumption we have in North America that 17-year-old kids know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And off I went to art school only to discover that I couldn’t do it on demand.” At the same time, Michael had purchased a new car which wasn’t going to pay for itself. So he took a job working in one of the local restaurants and immediately fell in love with cooking.
“I started off working in some very good restaurants and got drawn in by the creativity of it — the fine arts of it.”
Michael also discovered a feeling of great independence. “It was quite possibly the first thing in my life that I discovered by myself. It had nothing to do with my parents.”
Michael moved up the local culinary ranks at lightning speed, landing his first head chef position at just 22 years of age.
“I was working as the sous chef at the very best restaurant in town, and when you’re sous chef in the best restaurant in town, the next guy who opens a new restaurant in town calls you.”
He would take the lead position at Tiffany’s on the Bay — an 165-seat restaurant serving up American bistro cuisine.
“It feels like 20 years since I’ve thought about that place. It was an intense job, but I fell in love with it.”
It was at that time in Michael’s life where he had his “ah-ha” moment. A moment that would change his life forever.
“I was heading into work one day and I’m 22 years old and I’m thinking,‘I can’t wait to get to work. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life. I’m going to absolutely be a chef.’ So I went to work and I quit,” he explains. “I quit because I’m an all or nothing guy and I didn’t trust that just working my way up the ranks in one city would mean I learned the best. That’s when I discovered that the best cooking school in the world was right across the street from where I grew up.”
With a drive for culinary success, Michael moved back in with his mother, a high school librarian, and enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America. The bestselling cookbook author would continue to impress as a student, finishing second in his class in 1991 and immediately going on to work in Michelin three-star restaurants in Europe.
Michael’s culinary escapades around the world have included cooking for world Olympians in Whistler, British Columbia during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, battling American culinary tycoon Chef Bobby Flay on Food Network’s popular series Iron Chef America, and being suspended by a crane above the beautiful beaches of Cape Town, South Africa while being served a formal dinner for 22 people. And while all adventures are memorable and noteworthy, the 49-year-old father of three says there are two key moments which stand out for him when ranking his life thus far and they both occurred in the same place.
Back to basics
Upon returning from Europe, Michael worked in New York alongside one of America’s top chefs, David Bouley. Despite being surrounded by culinary giants, he couldn’t help but feel that his own culinary path stretched far beyond the concrete city limits.
“I found myself thinking, ‘Something is missing.’ I found myself saying to people,‘I like it here. This is good, but I want to move out to the country. I want to meet some farmers. I want to plant a garden.’ I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but as luck would have it, I stumbled on The Inn at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island.”
Immediately upon hitting the island’s infamous red soil, Michael knew he was home.
“I came home when I moved here. It made me the man I am today. It made me everything I am today. This island. This place. So when I came to the island, I also came to a perfect place to be a chef and to ground myself.”
From 1991 to 1998, Michael held the position of head chef at The Inn at Bay Fortune.
“It was the 90s and it was long before anybody used the word ‘local.’ We didn’t say that back then. But I set out to create a true farm-to-table experience. It wasn’t some big, extravagant thing. The best chefs have always been the chefs that go out into the backyard and cook with what’s around them.”
While no longer a new concept, the inspiration of farm-to-table dining and promoting togetherness around the simple act of breaking bread stemmed from a few different points in Michael’s life.
During our phone conversation, Michael mentions that his mother, who is 72 and “still spry as a spring chicken” is currently visiting he and his wife, Chastity, and their three children in Bay Fortune, PEI.
Growing up, Michael says he and his two brothers would sit down to dinner every single day with their father, an Anglican minister, and enjoy a home-cooked meal prepared by their mother.
“This is what moms did in the 60s and 70s.You cooked for your kids. She insisted we sat down and had dinner every single day. It was just our norm.”
Fast-forward to the 90s and Michael is working at the inn and providing an intricate fine dining experience. He would not be brought back to that concept of good food served simply until 2002, when his first born, Gabe, came into the world.
“Everything changed when I became a dad. Like so many other people, I thought, this is my family and we’re going to sit around the table and I’m going to cook. As a dad, I had to wake up and realize I didn’t know a thing about food,” admits Michael.“I knew about fine dining, but I didn’t know food. I quickly realized this thing called wellness and health really matters and I am now responsible for another human being, so I better get this right.”
From that point on, Michael began examining the food industry under a magnifying glass and quickly uncovered the many food flaws consumers are missing when deciding what to put into their bodies. At 35 years of age, Michael decided to use his platform as a chef and advocate directly against the industrialized food system.
“I got angry. I spent several years livid at Big Food, Inc. and was very vocal about that.”
Michael’s values of gathering around the table with loved ones and enjoying a wholesome meal extends into every area of his professional sphere.
Food Network Canada’s hit show, Chef at Home, which invites viewers into Michael’s home kitchen, sprung from his desire to showcase healthy dishes done simply.
“Gabe was one or two years old and I said I want to do a healthy cooking show. [The network] said,‘No. We’re not going to do it.’ So we did it anyway.We called it Chef at Home.We added the whole freestyle cooking aspect to the show, but if you look closely, it mirrors my values. I’m not saying we don’t make brownies or cookies, but in the aggregate, it’s a healthy cooking show.”
And unlike most “reality” television shows of today, Michael assures that the program, which always ends with the chef’s dish of the day being enjoyed by family and friends, is the real deal.
“I’m not an actor. I’ve been lucky that Food Network has never asked me to do something that doesn’t reflect who I am.The trajectory of my Food Network shows always closely mirror who I am and what I’m doing with my life at the time.”
Along with Chef at Home, Michael hosts Chef Michael’s Kitchen and Chef Abroad, seen in more than 100 countries. He is also a judge on Food Network’s cooking contest, Chopped Canada and has travelled the world for his web series, Lentil Hunter.
With multiple shows on the go and constant travelling, Michael admits he eventually found himself at a bit of a crossroads.
“My so-called celebrity career had blasted off and I found myself one day just knowing in my heart something was wrong. Something was off and I couldn’t figure out what it was.”
It took a year for the chef to realize his priorities had shifted and he had lost sight of what he loved to do most — cook.“I was so busy talking about food, televising food, writing about food and promoting food on the road that I didn’t have any more time to cook food. I had lost my way.”
Around that same time, Michael and Gabe’s mother, Rachel Leslie, decided to part ways.“Perfectly amicably by the way,” Michael emphasizes.“We’re still complimented for how easily we did that.”
With a new-found focus and priorities in place, Michael began creating a lifestyle that made the most sense for him and his family, and he is proud to say he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing while being surrounded by the people he loves. But this by no way means he has decreased his workload and drive to share good, wholesome food with as many people as possible. He’s just found another way to do it.
In 2015, Michael and his wife, Chastity, who were married by Michael’s father on the island in August of 2013, became proprietors of The Inn at Bay Fortune — the same inn where he held the position of head chef for seven years.And while the name is the same, Michael says the pair have done a complete overhaul.
“She runs the hotel and I run the restaurant. It’s challenging at times and always rewarding. I think one of life’s greatest challenges, whether you’re in business with your wife or not, is work-life balance.”
Now with three children ages 14, seven and four, Michael and Chastity work as a team running a successful inn and a happy, healthy family.
“I still cook for my kids. I’m going to roast spatchcock chicken this afternoon.We’re going to sit down and eat at five o’clock and at six o’clock when they head up for bath time, I’m heading up to the inn for an hour or so.”
Michael’s newest cookbook, Real Food Real Good, echoes his everyday lifestyle. He describes his 10th book as “the bluntest message with the sharpest edge. In other words, it is exactly what the title suggests and I’m calling out Big Food, Inc. I’m telling it like it is and I’m not mincing words on what a real food lifestyle should look like. Processed food is bankrupting Canada. We have created a food system that externalizes the true cost of food. And that external cost is health care.We have the best funded health-care system in Canada’s history. The issue is too many Canadians think that processed food is okay. Processed food is making Canadians sick and we’re paying for it with our health-care system.”
Like all of Michael’s books, anyone at any culinary skill level can enjoy easy-to-make recipes featuring fresh and uncomplicated ingredients.
“It’s perfectly natural for us to confuse the unknown with difficult, but just because you don’t cook, or think you don’t know how to cook, it doesn’t mean that cooking is difficult.”
Wisdom with age
Michael says deciding to slow down and focus on what matters most becomes easier the older he gets.
“I’m going to turn 50 years old this year and one of the nice things about this stage of your life is there just comes a point where you stop caring about what other people think. Maybe that’s called growing up. I know what my values are, I know what I stand for and they influence each and every thing in my life. I am quite comfortable in my own skin. I’m happy to do my thing and it works for me.”
It’s no surprise then that when I asked the adventurous chef with the lengthy resume if there’s anything left on his bucket list, the response was simple.
“To see my Air Canada Elite status card disappear and evaporate,” Michael says with a laugh.“I spend too much time on the road and I’m dialing back. I’ve come down several tiers in the last two years. I want to be home more.” n
From Back to Basics: 100 Simple Classic Recipes with a Twist Copyright © Michael Smith, 2013. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.
Michael’s newest cookbook, Real Food Real Good, is set to be released this month by Penguin Canada.