Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Chef on a Mission

Ashbury College buzzed this past Monday night with a pre-festival event of delicious proportions. Both foodies and fans alike were neck-craning, wine-sipping, and cookbook-flipping in eager anticipation. And here, front and centre upon a shallow stage - in one of Ottawa’s oldest running schools - Canada’s hottest Chef, Michael Smith , stepped up with host Debbie Trenholm to the collective giddiness of the crowd.

Promoting his most recent cookbook Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen , 100 of my Favourite Easy Recipes, and known for his shows Chef Abroad, Chef at Home, Chef at Large and The Inn Chef, Michael Smith is no stranger to publicity or touring. Looking relaxed with his button-up shirt and jeans, he seats himself opposite the crowd and slides comfortably into conversation. Michael’s ‘enjoy yourself’ philosophy toward home cooking (i.e. not taking the process too seriously – and no worries when the chicken burns on the grill, just flip it over) translates well onto the stage where he’s simultaneously at ease and engaged. Yet there’s more to this picture, much more. Tonight, the chef has a mission.

Sitting there from my seat in the audience (yes, I too am giddy), listening to the questions of what-works-best-with-what, it comes as a pleasant surprise when he hijacks the conversation from ‘tips on cooking’ to something far more profound. For Michael Smith, the goodness, essence, and reason for food is in the story. And as the conversation swerves in this direction, the easy-going chef of PEI transforms into a man on a mission, and he’s sharing: no matter how many questions about butter, olive oil, or cooking instruments are thrown in his direction.  

Over twenty years ago, Michael Smith was forging an international reputation. Yet deep in the concrete jungle of New York, while both head chef and hugely successful; something suddenly changed. “I wanted to meet farmers, and fishermen, and plant a garden,” he recalls.  At the time, he had no idea how this agricultural reconnection would define his journey.

And here is where we meet Fulton, a farmer in PEI. Every year Fulton browses the farming catalogue and flips the pages till he finds that tomato of choice for the upcoming season. Seeds soon arrive and Fulton plants his creations in discarded Tim Horton coffee cups, nurturing the seedlings behind a wooden stove, investing time and attention in their growth.  Then, come August, and carrying a worn crate full of ripened tomatoes, he arrives at Michael’s home to display and share the fruits of his labour.  You can imagine the pride. You can imagine the flavour. And this is just one of Michael’s many stories about connections through local farming.

Stories are connections, and connections are essential for the chef as he  develops simple recipes with local flavours. Little did he know upon embarking to build stories, that his efforts would weave into a catching revolution. The hottest trend in food these days: going local. But for Chef Michael Smith, it’s not just about visiting the nearest farmer’s market. It’s also about preparation, appreciation, and sharing of that food. Because without sharing, where’s the real value?

And bam – with the ease of a politician, Michael deflects another foodie question. Instead of going into dinner party preparation, he discusses the value of mealtimes. What’s most important? The gathering. The company. The nutrition. According to him, perfection is a damaging myth. No one’s turkey arrives at the table backlit and sprayed with oil for that extra shine. Home cooking is about the home. The family. It’s an opportunity to build relationships, have fun, and foster a healthier lifestyle through connection with our food. 

And so, blue eyes shining in the spotlight, Michael Smith presents us with a challenge. North America has some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. He feels it’s time to move away from simply admiring food through television and magazines (“food porn” he calls it.). Everyone should be getting into the kitchen and forging a connection – no excuses. While people may not have a background in cooking, Michael is adamant that we’ve all got potential. 

“Every day, do your best to set an example within your sphere,” says Michael. This starts with giving yourself a break. No one needs to make the perfect meal, they just need to share with the perfect people (those they love most) – and start to create stories of their own. From visiting a local farmer’s market, to spending time with your family and connecting over dinner, that’s how change happens. For the chef, his message is clear: “Gather, prepare and share.” Michael sees reconnection with food (like the stories that sprout from a juicy, ripe tomato) as a cure to many cultural ailments. “This is about the future prosperity of Canada, your kids, your grandchildren.” Taken seriously, “we can move our food system to a better place.”

Moving beyond foodie talk (though foodie talk did happen and no, he doesn’t advocate stuffing the turkey - it’s a breeding ground for bacteria) it became clear that Chef Michael Smith is a storyteller.  Each time he gathers, shares and prepares, a rich account is being given. And if you bring that message into your home too, he truly believes we can change things for the better.