Michael Smith: Chef at Home

Robert Clark of C Restaurant and Michael Smith

Chef Michael Smith is Canada’s most noted ch ef. Food Network’s Chef at Home, and Chef Abroad draw a huge following and his cookbook tours command standing room only. (Check out the EAT review of The Best of Chef at Home)  Vancouver contributor Julie Pegg discovered there’s a lot more to Smith than celebrity. He is first and foremost a parent and happens to be PEI’s culinary ambassador. Smith is soapbox passionate as to where food comes from. Further, he is adamant that the message gets through to both parents and their kids.

Julie Pegg met Chef Smith and chatted with him briefly at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks, where he cooked from The Best from Chef at Home, and she caught up with him again by phone later in Calgary.

JP: What triggered you to become a chef?

MS: I was attending art school, had bought a car and needed to pay for it. I got a job cooking, loved it, and realized that it too was an art form. I figured if I’m going to do this I’d better get it right. I left art school and enrolled at CIA (Culinary Institute of America).

JP: And graduated suma cum laude, I understand?

MS: Second in my class.

JP: After your restaurant successes was it the birth of your son that influenced your leaving the professional kitchen?

MS: My gosh! Yes! Gabe was the main reason I changed gears. I’m an all or nothing guy. I had to be either a professional chef or dad. There were also a lot of other things going on around that time. It was a gamble but I don’t regret a minute of it. I began to connect with home cooks. That’s when I really learned how to cook!

JP: A mom wrote, in a forum I read,   “My 2 ½ year old son and I watch your show, then we head into the kitchen to cook dinner.” You must be thrilled when you hear stuff like that.

MS: Cooking, eating and sharing food with family is something very special. It certainly is for us. Rachel, [my wife] too, does a lot of the cooking. Hearing that a mom and little one sit down to watch the show then head to the kitchen to cook together? Boy, that makes me proud.

JP: When you’re at home do you shop for food daily? Weekly?

MS: Much of how we get our food depends on the time of year. Nearly all our family meals are based around fresh vegetables. Rachel is a vegetarian. I’m a vegetarian who eats meat. (Smith chuckles).  Whenever possible I shop daily and seasonally.  I make every effort to source that from local producers as well. And of there’s our great PEI seafood. Gabe and I love to hit the beach and dig for clams. And the lobsters are world class.

JP: You’re a vegetarian who eats meat?

MS: Although family meals center mostly on vegetables, I do enjoy meat occasionally. But I want to know where my meat comes from and what they ate. For instance cows should graze on grass, as they were meant to, not grains. Steak is “for the road” or a couple of times a year when Rachel goes on a Yoga retreat. Then Gabe and I take it outside and cook meat over an outdoor fire.

JP: I understand you were the guest speaker at UPEI (University of Prince Edward Island) recently. You spoke on the state of food in Canada and specifically on PEI.

MS: How the heck did you find that out?

JP: I was doing a little Michael Smith research and stumbled on the University website.

MS: It was called The Future Of Flavour. I was not there as the Food Network guy. I actually ended throwing away my prepared notes. I decided I wanted to push some buttons and get those kids to know how to engage with their food. We’ve lost a generation of cooks, and we are about to lose another one and I wanted them to know how important it is to take responsibility for their food and where it comes from [like sourcing from local farmers]. I also wanted them to know they can be comfortable in the kitchen cooking for themselves.

JP: What do you mean by Big Food Inc?

MS: That was a big part of the talk. Big Food Inc. is my term for all those big cheap profit seeking stores that don’t give a damn about you and want only to feed you processed preservative-filled crap. (I believe if you can’t pronounce the stuff on the side of the box then don’t eat it)

JP: How do you reconcile your ardent philosophy with The Food Network?

MS: The entertainment business and technology has been good to me. And I have my good habits and bad habits. I’m a regular guy. That doesn’t mean I can’t eat fresh, nutritionally and well nearly every day and have a conscience as to where my food comes from.

JP: Who is your favourite food author?

MS: Right now, Michael Pollan. [The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food]. His philosophy of eating [in seven words] tells us how we should all be eating. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Julie’s afterward: I came across the UPEI podcast of the Global Issues; Future of Food with Chef Smith. Talk about a passionate proponent of getting kids engaged with real food! I also discovered that Chef Michael Smith has created a scholarship for five years. One $500 award per year will be granted to a UPEI student in their second, third or fourth year in the Family and Nutritional Sciences Program, who is committed to questions of nutrition and food today’s world, and is in high academic standing.

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