Interview with Chef Michael Smith

Chef Michael Smith is one of Canada’s most prominent culinary figures. He is an award-winning chef, host of Food Network Canada’s Chef at Home and Chef Abroad, and is the official Food Ambassador for Prince Edward Island.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Michael Smith has been a professional chef for over 20 years. He is dedicated to supporting young Canadian chefs and the culinary education of our youth, and is continuously encouraging families to return to their kitchens and rediscover the joy of cooking. Michael’s style of cooking embraces the idea of simple, practical, and nutritious meals along with the exploration of “freestyle” cooking (using recipes merely as a guide for creating your own culinary masterpieces).

I was recently able to have a chat with Michael Smith while he was in town promoting his new cookbook, “The Best of Chef at Home”. Our conversation was truly inspiring, and his passion for food, cooking, and family is completely contagious. 

Your new and much anticipated cookbook, The Best of Chef at Home, has recently been released to rave reviews. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us in your own words what this book is all about?

This book is first and foremost about helping families relax and enjoy themselves in the kitchen. In writing The Best of Chef at Home, I’m hoping to help people understand that the kitchen can be a place to get rid of stress, that it is a place to relax and enjoy yourself, a place of fun. It doesn’t matter whose recipe you use or which cookbook you buy, I strongly believe that the decision to cook for your family is the important part. If my book or anybody’s book or website or resource helps make you comfortable in your kitchen, then I think it’s a good thing.

What do you think has led to our current concept of cooking being a stressful necessity rather than a creative act of sharing?

Quite simply it’s an offshoot of our culture of consumerism. We have put too much focus on accumulating stuff, and place more value on material items than cooking food and spending time with our family. As a result, we’ve lost a generation of cooks and we’re about to lose another.

I believe that one of the ways we can change this attitude is to put recipes in perspective, to approach them as a way of engaging people with food and treating it as an opportunity to teach. Any recipe that gets people comfortable is a good recipe, but I think that the whole experience of the recipe itself needs to be considered. I think it’s about more than just following instructions; it’s about the why. When you explain the reasons behind using a particular ingredient or incorporating a specific technique, it helps people understand that they’re part of the process. And I think it’s very important for cooks to know that their success lies not in duplicating a recipe, but in actually doing it themselves. Whatever the results, fundamentally you’ve already succeeded by simply making the decision to cook for yourself and your family.

The dominant theme in the book is about ‘freestyle’ cooking. Most of our readers fall into two groups: those who barely glance at a recipe before improvising on their own, and those who follow a recipe to a ‘T’. Any advice for people who wish to branch out and adopt a more ‘freestyle’ approach to their cooking?

The recipes in my book include all of the details necessary for anyone to succeed, but a recipe is just a road map. You can always stir your own personality into the food you create, and the ways of doing this are limitless. By understanding the why behind each recipe, it allows you to relax and understand you have a chance to try something different if you wish. As a cook you understand that it doesn’t matter if you use oregano or basil in your pasta sauce, both taste good, it’s just personal preference as to which one you use.

So I guess my advice for freestyle cooking is to use the recipe, but keep it in perspective and understand that it’s perfectly ok to add your own touches and flourishes.

I am preparing to dive into The Best of Chef at Home as the next review for our site. To be honest with you, I have been looking through the book and am finding it difficult to narrow it down to just three recipes to try! Which recipes would you recommend testing for our website?

I would suggest trying the three recipes that I cook the most at home: First one that pops into my head is the Sweet Potato Aloo Gobi. There’s just something about that recipe, it’s so flavourful. And then there’s the Whole Grain Pancakes which I make at least four days a week. And the Orange Ginger Beef which is a great example of freestyle cooking! Stewing meat is fundamentally a part of cooking all over the world; people just add their own local flavours. The thing I like best about this recipe is that the beef ends up more like a condiment, which is in fact consistent with the way most of the world stews their beef. It’s served over spinach and bean sprouts, making it more like a warm salad than a big heavy meal.

The food world was pretty shocked at the news that Gourmet Magazine will no longer be in publication. Were you surprised, and why do you think such a prominent magazine failed?

I was very surprised that Conde Nast didn’t seem to do everything in their power to keep that brand alive beyond manifestations such as TV programmes and a web presence. This economy will recover, and it just seemed short sighted that they allowed recent events to influence such an iconic magazine. On the other hand, no I wasn’t surprised. Gourmet out of all the big name food magazines, is the one that was the most elitist and the one that puts food the highest on the pedestal and I don’t think either one of those things is particularly useful in encouraging average families to cook food. I mean look at this conversation right here! The very fact that your blog exists at all is part of the reason that Gourmet the magazine has disappeared. And that’s okay! Media evolves and I think that anything which helps people get comfortable in the kitchen is a good thing. Frankly, I am not so sure that Gourmet was doing that anymore.

The Food Network has really helped catapult the world of food into the limelight, with chefs now achieving celebrity status among the masses. What do you think this type of attention has done for the food industry, positive and/or negative?

I recently wrote an article in the Globe and Mail on this topic, asking whether I am part of the solution or the problem (click here to read the entire article).  To be honest, I think I’m a little bit of both. In a time when fewer Canadians then ever before actually cook or understand what we’re eating or what food can do for us, I often ask myself this question: as a celebrity chef am I helping or hurting? We are being inundated with new cookbooks, cooking shows and foodie websites, yet people seem to be substituting the vicarious thrill of watching food being prepared for getting off the couch and actually making it themselves.

So as a celebrity chef what can I do? I can write and talk about things that matter. I can encourage you to engage with your food, to support local producers in your community. I can remind you how easy it truly is to cook, how a skill that is embedded in humanity can be a part of your lifestyle.

Restaurant Magazine’s annual list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” is once again missing a Canadian contingent. Considering this list is credited by many people to be the greatest indicator of the best places to eat on the planet, why are there not any Canadian restaurants on the list?

We don’t wave our flag enough. Bottom line is that our chefs are just as exciting and are cooking food that is just as relevant as any chef in the world. I think it’s more indicative of Canada’s place in the cultural strata…we get forgotten.

Many publishing outfits have said that during the economic downturn they have seen a steady increase in cookbook sales, especially books that deal specifically with comfort food. Does it surprise you that instead of eating out people are turning to their kitchens?

No it doesn’t surprise me, and in fact it thrills me to death! While we can attribute increased cookbook sales to the fact that food costs more in restaurants than it does when cooking at home, there’s a greater trend at play here: We are reengaging with food!

We’ve received a lot of emails from busy parents wanting to make delicious meals for their family without having to rely on using already prepared food items. As a busy man with a family of your own, any words of advice?

Unfortunately there is no magic solution! Like with all things in parenting, it begins and ends with patience and persistence. That being said, there are a number of things you can implement in order to help the process go more smoothly. First of all, don’t tell me that your eight year-old only eats Kraft Dinner. That’s not an example of a picky eater, it is just bad parenting. Don’t bring the garbage home! If there’s no garbage in the house your kids can’t eat garbage. It really is that simple, but sometimes we forget. Beyond that, I suggest we engage our kids with food, make them part of the process so that it’s hands-on and fun for them. Get them cooking! Let them help in the kitchen and involve them in shopping for ingredients at the supermarkets, but most importantly STAY AWAY FROM PROCESSED FOOD. Don’t go down those aisles – I can’t emphasise that enough! In the words of Michael Pollen: “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. “

I’m often asked by moms and dads for ideas on how to get their kids to stop being such picky eaters. Has your son Gabe ever gone through a fussy eater stage?

He’s going through it right now! He’s seven years-old and again it is a matter of patience and persistence. There are strategies you can put in place to help them through this difficult stage. For example; in our home you absolutely have to try everything on your plate. That’s all I expect! If you don’t like it that’s fine, I’m not going to force you to eat it, but you have to try. The other night I pan seared salmon and Gabe didn’t want to eat it because it was orange and it was fish, and I reminded him about the rule and he tried it and he loved it!

You’ve worked in some of the best kitchens all over the world, are an award-winning cookbook author, newspaper columnist, have owned your own restaurant, host television programmes, are the official Food Ambassador for PEI…what culinary hurdles is Michael Smith going to tackle next?

The next challenge for me is establishing a new school into my community in rural Prince Edward Island, a Kindergarten through Grade12 School with a fully functioning community kitchen. Integrating nutritional literacy into the curriculum of our new school is my life’s work. That’s my biggest dream, it’s what matters the most to me.

We’re seeing a real movement taking place in terms of getting the younger generations back into the kitchen and cooking. Is this something that you see as being a worldwide phenomenon?

Yes, absolutely. If we want to stop the ruinous health care expenses that are going to bankrupt our provinces and our country, then we have to start at the Kindergarten level in our schools and teach them nutritional literacy. That is the only long term sustainable solution. We have to understand that what is making us sick is what we’re eating. Processed food is the number one culprit, and when we eat real food we don’t get sick. I believe that we are seeing processed food go the way of tobacco, with governments beginning to wake up and acknowledge the dangers of what’s happening. Mark my words; there will be a tax on junk food. A tax that I will wholeheartedly support! It’s not fair that these big companies are stealing money out of our society and walking away from the ramifications of the health care crisis.

You were recently involved in Prince Edward Island’s Fall Flavours festival where you cooked every single recipe from your new book for a special dinner. What was that experience like?

We kicked off Fall Flavours this year with the official launch of my cookbook…and we cooked that book! It was an amazing experience, and as far as I know no one has ever done something like this before. We cooked every single recipe in the book (120 in total) at the Culinary Institute of Canada, and served a crowed of 250 people. It turned into this giant family style sharing and it was so energetic and fun…I’m definitely going to do it again!

What is your most memorable food experience?

I have had a great number of memorable experiences all over the world, but I’m going to flashback to a few weeks ago: my family and I pile in the car, drive a few miles down the road to our local apple orchard, fill our bag with 15 or 20 different varieties of apples, Gabe eats apples off the tree and throws cores all over the place, we go home and make applesauce for the winter. It doesn’t get any better. That’s what food is meant to be.

Michael Smith currently lives on Prince Edward Island with his partner Rachael and their son. For more information please visit www.chefmichaelsmith.ca