Vol. 1, No. 2 | Toronto: July 23, 2009 | News & features from the good food revolution

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Chef Michael Smith Interview
by Malcolm Jolley

The news had just broke: the new challenger on 'Iron Chef America' would be none other than the towering, James Beard Award-winning, Chef Michael Smith. I had to ask him about it, and also his amazing travel itinerary for his hit show 'Chef Abroad'. A gracious man, he agreed to talk about both (first, having to make a quick call to determine just what he could reveal, if anything, about the super-secret Iron Chef process), but what really animated him was the reason I had been invited to chat in the first place: his love of his adopted country and his favourite part, Prince Edward Island. Smith had just been named PEI's 'Food Ambassador' and had come to Toronto to talk up the great eating on the island, which culminates in the Fall Flavours Festival ("Where you can actually sit down and have a meal with the farmer who grew your food," he explained) at the end of September. Of course, Smith is no wallflower of a spokesperson. He lives his ambassadorial posting every day, and will contribute to Fall Flavours by cooking every single recipe from his upcoming book The Best of Chef at Home at a special dinner - a feat, he reckons, that has not been done before.

The Interview

Malcolm Jolley: So, I can reveal that you're going to tape an Iron Chef? You must be excited.

Michael Smith: Well, I wasn't sure that I wanted to do it, because I've moved away over the years from restaurant pressure cooking. But - and this is truly the reason that I do want to do it - on the other hand, I get to share this experience with two of my best buddies. This is what I call my "A Team": Chef Bill Pratt, who is a retired navy chef and my logistics chief and general right-hand man Paul Rogalski, who's coming with me to cook at the Olympics. Paul's the chef at Rouge in Calgary. So the fact that it's the three of us getting together to do this is enormously motivating. We're going at it thinking "what a thrill!" What an honour to do it, and who knows? We might even win.

MJ: It must be a lot of pressure...

MS: I'm trying not to get stressed out about it. I mean, we're clearly taking it seriously, but we're not freaking out about it either. In the grand scheme of things it just a television show. But it is pretty cool.

MJ: Hey, I just realised that you just said you were going to the Olympics. You mean Whistler?

MS: I am leading a team of chefs that will be preparing Canadian cooking at the Athlete's Village. Not for the public, but for the athletes. We're there to do Canadian cuisine, plus food from 85 ethnic groups from around the world.

MJ: How did that come about?

MS: I'll be there as the lead chef for Sodexo Canada, which is the world's largest food services contractor. It's part of my role as a sustainability advocate, chef and mentor for the company. It's one of the many hats I wear. But I get to go to Whistler, where 50 of us will be serving 50,000 meals a week. I should mention that McDonald's will also be there.

MJ: I'm guessing you'll be serving a lot of carbs! Maybe PEI potaoes?

MS: Yeah! We're still figuring everything out, but I'll tell you about the menu closer to the date.

MJ: OK. Speaking of press and press releases the one I read before coming here says that you've just become a 'Food Ambassador' for PEI. But I thought you were one already?

MS: I guess I've been an unofficial ambassador for many, many years, but the folks at PEI Tourism asked me officially, I think, because culinary tourism has become such a big part of what we do. And we want to tell the world about that. I'm a passionate islander. I'm so blessed to live there and it's such a special, gorgeous and unique place. I'm very proud of my friends and neighbours - the community I'm a part of - because the food is fantastic.

MJ: And you're an islander by choice, right?

MS: Yeah, I wasn't born there. But I've been there now 17 years. And I choose to remain. It's just that kind of place, where if you go, you'll never want to leave. And this happens to a lot of people - they choose to stay and start looking around for something to do. And more often than not, they end up doing something special with food.

MJ: OK, so if I got off a plane, or crossed the Confederation Bridge and started to look around for something to eat, what would happen?

MS: Well, I think I can say that we're a bit of a cutting edge place for culinary tourism. And, you know, I think our strength is our size: it allows us to spin on a dime. And we're all sort of on the same page.

MJ: Prince Edward Island seems to me to be part of a whole North American movement to bring culinary tourism back to the places that actually grow food. I think of your career as kind of anticipating that. I mean, you started in New York, right?

MS: I started out in New York City kitchens - but I had a hard time finding my niche. I was working for David Bouley who had, what was regarded by most food writers at the time as, the best restaurant in North America. But it wasn't quite for me. I started thinking, I've got to get out into the country, I've got to find some time for gardening and meet some farmers. I didn't really know what that meant, except it sounded good.

MJ: That's what all the cooks in city restaurants say now!

MS: Sure. But it was going on even then, too. I was attracted and motivated by some of the pioneers in The States in the mid-80s who were saying, "You don't have to be French to be successful. You can be local. You can do what the French do and use local ingredients and stir up local traditions." And that struck me, in particular Larry Forgione, truly one of the pioneers of the North American food movement. And I ended up working for him.

MJ: His restaurant was called An American Place, right?

MS: That's right. Hugely inspiring. But, anyway I also ended up going to Europe for apprenticeships, came back to New York and then all of a sudden Prince Edward Island fell on my lap.

MJ: How did that happen, exactly? It's kind of an odd move?

MS: Well, I was fortunate. The guy who owned the Inn at Bay Fortune, David Wilmer, took a risk and decided he wanted to move up to fine dining, and went looking for a chef. They'd had roast chicken and boiled lobster up to that point, which is fine, but David really decided to go for it. So, he hired me and it worked!

MJ: But how did he find you?

MS: Just networking and partly through the Culinary Institute of America, where I went to school. But I just want to get back and say, that local food connection - that thing that we're all craving right now - it never left PEI. I mean all of us on the island know somebody who's a farmer, or a fisherman or culinary artisan of some type. Part of living in a rural setting is that you retain these connections, and it really does define our cuisine.

It also doesn't hurt that we're home to the Culinary Institute of Canada, one of the leading cooking schools in the country, if not the best. A lot of the kids that go to the school come to Prince Edward Island and say, "I'm not leaving, I'm staying." So, we have a disproportionate share of great chefs doing all sorts of things. There's the high stratum - where you go the night before you have to go home - restaurants, but then there's all sorts of other places at that next level, which I think is more defining of local food culture. Every place has high-end culinary restaurants, but what's more important is what's next. On PEI we've retained a country restaurant sensibility - real seafood chowder - and a pride in using what's around us. I often call PEI a big farm surrounded by a beach.

MJ: Can you give us an example of a down home place you like?

MS: One of my favourite restaurants is The Sheltered Harbour Cafe, but we locals just call it the 'Ultramar' or 'The Garage' because it's attached to a gas station. And you could write the menu - you know exactly what's on the menu. A typical family restaurant but the food is all local. It's one of the busiest restaurants on the island, and the places like this are the ones that are packed. That's the revolution right there.

MJ: You have been a 'Chef Abroad', travelling the world for your latest television show.

MS: I think I've been to 26 countries and counting in two years - all over the world, really. Places I've always wanted to go: Thailand, Morocco, Peru. Places in Europe I hadn't been before. And touching down on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean - 260 miles per hour to 0 in a matter of seconds. Or being on the Amazon River: still 1,000 miles from the ocean and it's four miles wide! It's been a complete adventure. But I have to tell you, what struck me was not what I expected to find. By far, the most profound thing I've learned is how blessed we are to live in Canada But that's always the best thing about travel: coming home.

MJ: But what about the great meals?

MS: Taking my wife to Paris was pretty cool. And Thailand. We were stuck in Thailand; we got in on the last flight because of the political trouble. We got our filming in, but to get out, we had to drive down south several hundred miles south to get he last plane out of the country to Malaysia. On the way we pulled over to a truck stop. There were a bunch of cooking wagons under a giant tree and had the best meal of the trip. It was incredible. It cost $15 to feed six people and we tried everything on the menu. Of course we couldn't shoot any of it!

MJ: There's kind of a theme going on: 'The Ultramar" in PEI? Gas stations, truck stops?

MS: Yeah. There is something there. Good and simple.

Chef Michael Smith's website is www.chefmichaelsmith.ca. Malcolm Jolley is the editor of Good Food Revelation.

 

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