“I never really left PEI”: Chef Michael Smith on going back to your roots
If you’ve watched the Food Network, you probably know Chef Michael Smith.
Over the least 20 years, the tall, fun-loving chef has hosted several popular cooking shows, including Chef at Home and Chef Abroad. He’s also been a judge on Chopped Canada and written 10 best-selling cookbooks. Before conquering TV and publishing, though, Smith had made his name as the chef at The Inn at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island. He has since returned to the property – as its owner.
To find out more about his professional journey, and what it’s was like going back to his roots, we spoke to the man himself.
Workopolis: After working in restaurants around the world, you moved to The Inn at Bay Fortune in 1992. What was it about that restaurant, and Prince Edward Island, that won you over?
Smith: Well, I’m an idealistic kind of guy. I was working in New York City, and I was working at what most people said was the best restaurant in America at the time. A lot of people would have looked at that and thought, there you go, you got what you wanted. But it wasn’t what I wanted. Yeah, it was over-the-top amazing food, but it was the big city, and I, as an idealistic, blue-skies kind of guy, I wanted to move out to the country. I wanted to meet the people that grew my food and produced my food. And that’s what brought me to PEI in the first place, and it’s why I never really left PEI.
Do you think those were some of the reasons behind your success at The Inn at Bay Fortune?
One hundred per cent.
Understanding the source of your ingredients, and understanding that another living, breathing human being produced those ingredients – those are very profound lessons as a chef. Those ingredients didn’t come out of a truck or a box or a can. They came from earth, from someone’s hands. And when you know the people, and you know their stories and passion, it makes you a better cook; it makes it personal. If you know the people, it’s not just an oyster, it’s Johnny and Leo’s oyster.
You mentioned profound lessons for a chef…what do you think makes a good chef?
Well, there’s lot of different chefs out there, and I experienced a lot of different kitchens in my early career. I actually learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t do. If you ever watched Gordon Ramsay on TV – those were the kind of experiences I had. So much of that is quite disempowering, but they can be useful learning experiences. And that’s important.
Early in your career, you need to recognize and acknowledge that it’s all about learning. If your focus is 100% on making money, you’re in the wrong business – and I don’t think that’s unique to being a chef. I think that’s just what makes a good employee, of any kind, in any industry. You have to be open to learning and working hard. You need to understand that, in the end, you get out what you put in. Business is a meritocracy. Especially in kitchens. No one gives a damn what you drove in to work, or where you went to school, or what colour or sex you are. None of that matters. What matters is what you can deliver.
It seemed like you transitioned seamlessly into TV and food media. What were some of the challenges involved in making that career change?
Well, from an outside perspective, it looked like a seamless transition from being a chef at a restaurant to being one on TV, but, it was a challenge. All of a sudden, I found myself in a completely different industry. And if you’re not cognizant of how that industry works, you’re going to get marginalized and left behind.
You’re also the only guy in the room on that side of the camera, and the only one in the room that cares about the food. Everybody else is in the TV business. If I’m the guy working the camera, it’s not my job to worry about the food. It’s my job to care about getting the right shot…is it lit properly? Is it in focus? Is the camera recording?
I was very lucky, though. I worked with ethical people early on, and became a partner in our own production business, which has served me very well for 15 years. It’s allowed me to fight for the integrity of the food, and the overall message; it allowed me to stick to my values, and not just be entertaining.
You recently bought The Inn at Bay Fortune and have, in a way, gone back to your roots. What lessons have you learned in that process?
You know, I returned to The Inn 17 years after I left. I was a very different person, let alone chef. I’ve always cared deeply and passionately about PEI, and health, wellness, nutrition – all those things that I stand for publicly are also very private values. But those are now a part of our new business in a very meaningful way. They’ve helped me better understand how people come together around the table, and that’s way more important than any creativity I might have.
With that in mind, what advice would you give Canadians looking to get into the culinary world?
Be prepared to work hard and look out for opportunities to learn.
Compensation is not just your paycheck. It’s what you’re learning, the community you live in, and being part of a team. Those are the things that really matter.
And maybe the food you eat? What should Canadians be eating to keep their productivity up during the day
To be at peak productivity, you have to take care of yourself. It’s really that simple.
If you’re eating a lot of processed food, you’re not getting all the nutrients you need. You can’t think straight, you can’t think clearly, you don’t have clarity of thought, you’re bogged down. You’re actually making yourself sick, slowly.
There’s a direct correlation between eating real food and being at your best. So if you’re driven, the kind of person that wants to succeed, that wants to be the best, there’s no other way. You have to eat real food. Processed food is just not going to do it.
Chef Michael Smith’s new cookbook, Real Food, Real Good (Appetite by Random House), is out now.