As chef Michael Smith cooks for at-home audiences on his wildly popular show “Chef at Home,” he demystifies the alchemy of the kitchen. With every quick dice and handy tip, he exudes a quietly whimsical sensibility that makes him instantly relatable. Off-screen, as a food activist and educator, he minces no words when it comes to the importance of uncomplicated, nutritious home cooking.
It’s hard to believe that for six years, this man was head chef at one of the best known restaurants in Canada, plating up delicate little creations such as “lemon risotto with spring asparagus salad, Parmesan crisp, crème fraîche and lemon froth.” The Culinary Institute of America graduate cooked alongside luminaries like David Bouley in New York, and Albert Roux in London.
Then, in 2002, something happened that demolished his view of cooking as high art.
“When my son was born, it forced a rethink in my world on what food is in reality,” Smith said in an interview with Taste of Life.
His conclusion? “I didn’t know a damn thing about food.”
Spurred by this realisation and a “slow epiphany” that took place over several years, he set about figuring out how to rebuild a career based on understanding the challenges of the kitchen for ordinary people.
He and his wife, Chastity, bought The Inn at Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island, where his career had begun years earlier, and remodeled it after the image of the cook that he has become.
The Inn, which opened under its new management this summer, is an extension of this reinvigorated mission. The crème fraîche and frothy lemon are no more. Instead, guests “feast” at 7 p.m. sharp, side-by-side at a banquet table, food served family-style, all of it prepared in a “25-foot, brick-lined, wood-burning, fire-breathing beast.” Chives, spuds, and a battery of other vegetables that accompany the wood-roasted meats are all harvested and foraged locally. The Inn employs three full-time farmers.
“We’re not doing fine dining in the slightest bit,” Smith declares. He found fine dining to be too much of a niche. “The Inn stood for that intricately plated fine dining for many years; we threw out that failed model. Frankly, the world has moved on. We started from scratch: fire, farm, feast. They’re the three words that define what we do.”
Smith has become one of the most popular cookbook authors in Canada, in part by producing cookbooks for people who don’t cook.
The need for this is acute: health crises stalk the developed world as people feed themselves and their families processed and sugary foods. Nearly 60 percent of the Canadian population is obese or overweight, according to a 2005 parliamentary report; obesity costs the Canadian economy up to $7 billion a year, according to an academic study in “Obesity Reviews.”
“We’ve lost several generations of cooks in North America, with an increasing reliance on convenience food,” Smith said. “Somewhere after World War II, we believed we had a God-given right to convenience, along with life, liberty, and happiness. But unfortunately, it’s killing us.”
On his cooking show “Country Chef,” for example, Smith whips up a bacon, potato and cheddar tart consisting of dozens of strips of bacon, layers upon layers of grated cheddar cheese and large baking potatoes. The bacon strips are folded in, and then the whole tart, twelve inches in diameter, is weighed down in the pan and baked.
If that sounds ironic in light of the talk of obesity, it’s about moderation, he says. “I have a healthy aversion to the whole idea of diets,” Smith explained in an 2011 interview with Food Network Canada. “It’s a holistic approach. I start with vegetables. I cook vegetables day after day.”
Smith’s new book, Make Ahead Meals, presents a range of strategies for busy people tackling their kitchen duties. The slow cooker features heavily, as well as techniques such as when to do prep, or how to efficiently make two lasagnes instead of one.
The 100 recipes in the book were developed over a 16-month process, with many of the ideas pulled from Smith’s own kitchen. He cooks for his family every day.
If it seems like work, that’s because it is. So what? “You’ll find that joy. You will.” In the meantime, Smith says, “get over it.”
“I’m a busy guy. I have two flourishing companies to run. So when I cook, I have to be strategic, and deliver. I’m telling myself, tonight it’s paella, and at the same time there’s that oxtail broth I’ve got in the fridge.”
But after a day at the office, who’s got time to juggle paellas and oxtail broths?
“There’s no beating around the bush. It can be a chore. No book is going to change that,” he concedes. “But my expectation is that you’re going to suck it up. Somehow we’ve been fed the wrong idea, that we don’t have to cook. But we’re making a big mistake if we think some people in a boardroom can choose what our kids eat.”
Don’t strive for perfection, Smith advises. That pursuit, which will inevitably fail, is “ruinous.” Instead, relax, freestyle, be empowered. You have Michael Smith’s permission to mess it up. Just try to do it better next time.