Time for a winner chicken dinner. Creamy Chicken Dijonnaise, straight from the heart of Burgundy,…
Many Canadians, and food lovers around the world, know Chef Michael Smith from his television shows on Food Network Canada; Chef Michael’s Kitchen, Chef at Home, and Chef Abroad. We’ve seen him as a judge on Chopped Canada and may have even caught his web series, Lentil Hunter where he trots across the globe exploring pulses in different cultural cuisine.
We’ve also been fans of his cookbooks; Back to Basics, Fast Flavours and Family Meals (just to name a few).
Last year Michael and his wife Chastity recently took a grand leap of faith with the acquisition of The Inn at Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island. Since then they’ve poured heart and soul into the property where Michael Smith catapulted from his life as a successful chef into our living rooms and kitchens, and are now watching it become something completely new.
It’s a wonder that the man has any time to write at all, and yet he does. His tenth cookbook, Real Food, Real Good launched this fall and with it, I believe, Chef Michael Smith has launched the next chapter of his life as a Real Food Advocate.
While in Ottawa last week he took the time to sit down for the candid, very impassioned conversation transcribed here. This is an interview in three parts; first delving into the content of Real Food, Real Good and its value as an ongoing resource. Followed by a rich discussion on Chef Micheal Smith’s return to the kitchen at the Inn of Bay Fortune (and what a kitchen it is!), and wrapping up with a fun rapid-fire-round where we learn a little bit more about the man behind the message.
Clocking out over the five thousand word mark, I thought for your convenience (and to make use of modern technology) I’d load up the interview in its entirety, unedited, for your Podcast listening pleasure. Plugin the headphones while you’re on the bus and be a fly on the wall for an empowering, life-changing dialogue.
I hope that you will take the time to read, listen and share this interview because it’s important. It’s important that we know our food, where it comes from, and how to feed ourselves and our families well.
Please, by all means, join the conversation. Add your favourite real food strategies in the comments section below. Or tell us… is it waffles or pancakes for breakfast at your house?!
Getting Real About Real Food
FG: Thank you very much for coming to Ottawa, and taking the time to have a little chat with me today. You’re in town for the 55+ Lifestyle Show, is 55+ a big demo for you?
MS: I guess it is. I mean it’s certainly a demographic of folks that respect the issues of health and wellness. They have the sort of disposable income that allows them to make good, solid food choices and perhaps the time to cook on a regular basis. They have to opportunity to basically overcome the kind of impediments that slow down other demographics
FG: A lot of demographics, especially those with kids, and that’s been one of your big things for a long time, family meals. And the title of your new book is Real Food, Real Good and in it, you lead with a manifesto sorts. So tell me, what does real food mean to you?
MS: You know what it is? Look, I’m fifty years old here in a couple of weeks and I guess I’ve lost tolerance for beating around the bush. It’s time to tell it like it is. The simple fact is we’ve got a flawed food system in North America. We really do. We’ve got several basic premises at the center of it that just don’t work. They don’t hold water.
One of them is the idea that processed food is an OK option. But it’s simply not. Letting a factory cook for you is one of the single worst life choices anyone can make – ever. The other one is this idea that we’re too busy. We’re so busy being busy that we don’t have time to be humans. Just stop, pause and cook simple food.
We also have this idea that food belongs on a pedestal. So much of food media puts food on a pedestal. That leads to this idea that good food is complicated or expensive or difficult or … anything that takes away from the idea that ‘I can do it’.
Beyond that, we’ve created this idea for ourselves that, if I can’t cook, it must be difficult. You know, it’s unknown to me, therefore it’s difficult. And I understand that you know I’m a reasonably pragmatic guy. But I’m not going to agree with you on that. Just because it’s unknown to you doesn’t inherently make it difficult.
In other words, really we’re only talking about one thing here. There’s really only one thing you’ve got to do, it’s make the choice. Get yourself informed, and make the choice. Recognize and realize how important this is. This is not ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice’.
This is LIFE this is REAL. And in particular if you’re a parent – this is essential. – Chef Micheal Smith
FG: One of my favorite parts of the book is the introduction. There’s a section called ‘So-Called Foods”, where you talk about cake mixes and the fact that they can live on shelves for years and never change, and my personal favorite is, “real juice“…
MS: Ya, you’ve seen it before “real lemon”, “real lime” — come on!
FG: Love this line: “If a food processor feels compelled to call something “real” chances are it isn’t.” How can people tell?
MS: Well, first of all, if it’s in a box or a can, I’d be a little suspicious! And maybe we should back up a little higher level for a second because I think it often comes as a shock to so many people how gamed this system is. How poorly enforced, how poorly written and regulated food labeling laws are in the first place.
For instance the words “whole grain”. This is certainly a hot button.
FG: Oh, you are speaking my language now.
MS: Oh yea, we see this all the time, the words “whole grain” and that just cases that healthy aura over something, but really — it means nothing. The word “multigrain”, ridiculously nothing. It means absolutely zero. You know, in some isles in the supermarket, the word ‘natural’ is heavily and highly regulated. In other isles, you can say whatever you like and call it ‘natural’.
I guess my point here is: first get informed. Recognize that your supermarket is full of pitfalls, that they don’t care about you, that Big Food Inc. doesn’t give a dam about you. That they’re not somehow, all of a sudden magically, caring about your health and wellness and your kids and all of it. They’re not! Quite the reverse, they’ve got board room tables that are full of WAY more lawyers and scientists than cooks. You know, people that could give a dam about us. They’re just looking for loopholes and ways to screw us in effect.
FG: And make a lot of money.
MS: And make a shit tonne of money doing it! We’ve got to do better. Worse yet, we have now created in North America a food system that externalizes its true costs. And I think most people just don’t understand this, and legitimately. Like, I don’t think you’re a dummy or something. I think legitimately if you’re at the supermarket and you’ve filled up your cart and your paying for it and you get the number at the bottom of the tape and you think, ‘I just paid X dollars for my food’; that you would think ‘well that’s what it costs.’ Why wouldn’t you? But if you’ve got a cart full of processed food, that‘s NOT what it costs.
We are externalizing the true cost of processed food. We hold it somewhere else in society. We hold it in our HEALTH CARE SYSTEM. And we’re surrounded by people that are pissed off at politicians. Pissed off because apparently we don’t fund health care enough. Well, the reality is there’s more funding in health care that ever before in the history of the world. We’re doing just fine funding health care! – Chef Michael Smith
It’s just that nobody will stand up and take personal responsibility for the choices we’re making that are stressing out that health care system. When you look at all the things that push health care to the edge, most of them are directly attributed to processed food. We’ve got to stop this. This is a cycle of defeat.
FG: So you’re position isn’t: people are eating processed food, just leave them be alone they’re happy!?
MS: No, it’s not because I think its slow-motion child abuse. I’m sick and tired of watching parents feed their kids’ breakfast candy!
The worst possible thing you can do for a kid is to send them out the door in the morning with their blood sugar spiking. It’s just horrific how many poor children, and I don’t mean economically poor, I mean ‘wow, we’re doing this to our kids!’ We’re feeding them, and letting them eat all this crap and their blood sugar is swinging wildly all over the map, all day long and that’s their LIFE. That’s what they know.
They’re used to first being frantic, full of energy but frantic energy. Then it plunges and they’re depressed they can’t move. Then it’s back up again. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to just live our life, just truckin’ along. You know, nice and normal, even keel. OK, a little emotion now and then, whatever. But the children that are forced to endure that kind of life – that is not LIFE. That is child abuse. We’ve got to do better.
FG: That’s one of your big things in Real Food, Real Good and the ‘So-Called Foods’ section, where you talk about breakfast cereal.
MS: Breakfast Cereal! You know I’d like to take some of these people and put them in a room and punch them in the eye! Like some of these big executives at these big food companies that are pandering all this crap to us, creating all these television ads and all these fun little cartoon characters to convince kids that breakfast candy is something they should eat every morning. And… NO… it’s just bad, bad, BAD.
Somebody’s got to stand up and tell it like it is. Frankly, I’m at that point in my life where I’m just gonna tell it like it is! I could give a shit what people think. It’s time to tell it like it is.
FG: Pick me, right? I’ll tell it like it is?
FG: This leads to my next question, in the list of ‘So-Called Foods’ if there was one thing if you were going into every kitchen, what would you throw out? Or does it all have to go?
MS: Well, breakfast candy that’s a good place to start. Ummm… soda. It’s absolutely liquid sugar.
FG: PURE liquid sugar.
MS: Oh my God.
FG: The cause of so much obesity.
MS: Man, fruit juice. We just don’t know how gamed we are. It’s shocking. What we can do to apples and get away with. Big Food Inc knows this, you can take apple juice and you can strip out 100% of everything but the sugar and be left with pure fructose – high-grade sugar – and you can still call it apple juice.
Then you can load up other fruit juices with this apple sugar and put that, again, that healthy sticker on a product, and everybody believes ‘oh, I’m just drinking fruit juice, this is great, I’m drinking fruit juice, I’m happy!’ Well, guess what, you’re drinking just as much sugar as you would if you were drinking pop.
Chocolate milk, here’s another one. Let’s take something really healthy, something that human beings have evolved (we’re the only species that drinks another mammal’s milk but we have evolved for this). Let’s take it and ruin it. Let’s load it with sugar.
You know, liquid sugar. Oh my God, liquid sugar is killing Canadians.
FG: I think it’s killing a lot more than Canadians.
MS: It is. It is…
FG: … but I totally agree with you. When I look at Real Food, Real Good I think there are some great recipes for families. Even just the Creamy Tomato Soup [with Grilled Cheese] is such a simple thing that you can do for your family to make meals so much better. What’s your favorite takeaway from this for families?
MS: Well, the book is split into two parts. My strategy here – and I’ve thought this through – I’m really trying to be a resource here. I think ultimately, strategically step one: get yourself informed.
FG: That’s what the introduction is ALL about.
MS: Exactly. You don’t have to be a scientist, you don’t have to go to school, you don’t have to take web courses or anything. Just get informed. The fact is we’re taken advantage of by Big Food Inc. every single day. So get informed.
FG: Read labels.
MS: Read labels! Ya, get informed AND THEN… make that choice. Make that choice: ‘I am going to do better. I’m gonna’ cook real food for myself and for my family. I’m just going to do it. I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to overcome the hurdle of the unknown, whatever that is. And I’m quickly going to realize – this is not hard. This is not difficult.’
And that leads to the second part of the book, which is really just simple, straightforward recipes. In a very deliberate attempt to remind home cooks, whether they’re experienced or not, that good food can be very simple. It does not need to be complicated, or expensive, or [require] special tools, or you’ve got to go to chef’s school or anything like that. It’s just straight-up: go for it.
I’ll tell you, cooks all over the world crave simplicity. Everybody in the kitchen is busy! Everybody’s got something else to do. Nobody strives for complexity in the kitchen unless they’re a very well-paid chef. We’re not chefs at home, we’re cooks.
FG: Even just on my blog, I’ve become so much more sensitive to the fact that it’s a time crunch for people. I make a real serious effort to keep recipes to like, 45 minutes. That’s what I have to put dinner on the table. I figure that if it’s longer than that, it has better be passive cooking. So that I can sear it and put it in the oven, right?!
MS: Yea, yea, yea, sure.
FG: You know, something super simple. You’ve even got some slow cooker recipes in Real Food, Real Good. So, I like it that it’s very time-sensitive too. You don’t have to get complicated to make good food.
MS: No, you don’t. Having said that though, there’s a couple of recipes that are straight-up complicated. Like making that Pho [Vietnamese Pho Noodle Soup], making a proper bowl of Pho, that’s crazy!
FG: Making a good Pho is a challenge! (laughter)
MS: But. It’s in the book, it’s an outlier. I like to include one or two, like projects.
FG: It’s good to challenge people.
MS: It is simple cooking, like, you can do it. But it’s an attempt to show you that sometimes when we eat something like this, there’s real integrity in it. There’s real effort that goes into making these seemingly simple dishes that you see on menus.
The Inn at Bay Fortune – The Return
FG: Speaking of menus; you have a new menu because you just recently bought the The Inn at Bay Fortune [in PEI] with your wife Chastity. Which is an amazing thing for you, going back to your roots.
MS: Coming full circle. The RETURN!
FG: Hahahaha, The RETURN! How did that come about? Are you liking being an innkeeper?
MS: Ahha, we’re loving it! We’re two years into the project. I was 17 years away from this property, never left, you know, we lived in Fortune. I did go to Halifax for a couple of years but I’ve lived in Fortune basically, the last 25 years. We just saw an opportunity last year and dived in!
The Inn had really floundered, it needed a refresh. It needed a reboot and so we immediately set about rebooting the property. We’ve completely renovated the place. We’ve gutted the main building, we’ve built public spaces, we tore one end of the building off, and built my dream-come-true fire kitchen.
FG: We’re going to get to that!
MS: We’re having a grand time!
FG: That is a REALLY significant investment, the ‘fire kitchen’. It says [on the Inn of Bay Fortune website] “… a 25 foot brick-lined, wood-burning, fire-breathing beast — the FireWorks.” Are you having fun yet?!
MS: Yea, we are. (laughs) Yea we are! This is very real. And again, I think there’s a clear thread here between the book, really within everything I do right now. Authenticity is something you start to crave as you gain wisdom.
I cooked at the Inn in the 90’s, I spent seven years there. I grew up as a chef there, I learned very profound things there. But I also spent all of my creative energy, all of my passion there, trying to be provocatively creative. Trying to be ‘the man’, ‘the big guy’, you know, the best in the county. And all those things… and top ten. And we succeeded, we quadrupled the size of the business. But all these years later, I could give a shit!
I’m not trying to impress people. I’m just trying to do something authentic, that speaks TO ME. Really, for us, my wife and I [at the Inn at Bay Fortune], it came down to three simple things:
We’re going to farm, we’re going to grow every single thing we serve. We’re going to cook it over live fire, and we’re going to serve at feast tables. We’re going to do it communally, family style.
And MAN, we’re having a good time.
FG: That feast atmosphere promotes a lot of conversation. Do you find people are on their phones at a feast table?
MS: Not really. No. No, they’re not. Not as much as you might expect. Certainly, there’s a lot to take pictures of. There absolutely is.
FG: I’ve seen some!
MS: It’s really interesting to watch the dynamic in our dining room every night. The farm and the fire thing didn’t concern me at all. I mean, who wouldn’t want to grow their own vegetables and cooks it over live fire?! Big deal. But the feast thing, the family-style thing… really scared us. It really did. There were no best practices out there, there was no other restaurant out there to go and see how they do it. There was no book or…
FG: Delis yes, but restaurants, no.
MS: Right?! It’s just not there! So, that was really risky for us. Now that it’s off and running and working so well – with 20/20 hindsight, the clarity of looking back – I know that in effect what’s happened is that we’ve stumbled onto a largely unknown and defiantly unmet, unfulfilled need in our society.
There are so many of us running around – in particular 20 somethings, 30 somethings, younger generations – running around busy being busy. Doing their thing. And so busy that they don’t have time to come together around food or around the table. Couple that with the simple fact that, as human beings, we’re still very much the same human beings that were running around in the woods looking for roots and berries a thousand years ago – because evolution can’t keep pace with civilization.
Put all that together and we have this unmet need. In other words: we are human beings, we crave human connection. We crave connection around food. It’s literally IN us. It’s hardwired into our soul, anthropologists and sociologists will tell you this.
So, when we presented that opportunity to our guests, sometimes it’s a surprise to them. They don’t necessarily understand what’s about to happen when they come to my restaurant. But when they get there and they sit down and they delve into it, they quickly come out of themselves. They rediscover that basic inherent human function of – let’s just connect around food. Let’s relax, let’s talk. Let’s ignore our phones. Let’s be with other people.
This is humanity at its best, it truly is.
FG: Many restaurateurs are finding that it’s very difficult to secure and maintain and KEEP good staff nowadays, a real labour shortage. Have you experienced any of that?
MS: Yes and no. We set a very high bar for our project. We have no lack of folks that want to come and join the fun and be a part of it. Having said that though, Millennials are a very different generation in the kitchen than what was used to years ago.
They’re not equipped to work the long hours. They’re not ready to work six days a week. They want two days off…
FG: They want two days off IN A ROW.
MS: … they want them in a row. I’m choosing my words carefully here because I’ve got some REALLY GOOD strong, passionate people around me. I’m very proud of them, but I’ve also had to deal with a few bad apples and unfortunately, one of the underlying issues (shockingly) is that they’re so malnourished!
They’re 20 something cooks, they don’t eat the food we cook. I mean I – out of my own pocket – hire and employ a family meal cook. Every single day I put my cooks at a table and we eat MY ingredients, from the farm. We feed them, they eat, they come together, it’s important to me – yes.
But what do you think they’re eating for breakfast?! What do you think they’re eating when they get home at night? They’re all drinking sports drinks and pop. They’re malnourished! They don’t have that ‘go-go’ energy.
Now, this isn’t everybody. But I’ve certainly had to deal with a few bad apples. This is one of the underlying issues, they’re just malnourished. They don’t take care of themselves.
FG: That is so interesting.
MS: Right?! I find it fascinating. This is one thing I’m going to be thinking A LOT about. This is going to be my next thing.
FG: This is almost like that old saying; a cobbler’s kids have no shoes.
MS: And I’m so aware of that. To me, I set a high bar for myself and for those around me and for the project. What’s the point in having this passionate team of cooks, young cooks, cooking up their hearts. Yet, they themselves are not absorbing all these wonderful food lessons around them. They themselves are not eating real food and enjoying the real food. They just see it as work. They may be passionate about it! They may absolutely be passionate about it, but they haven’t made the personal connection.
It’s reminding me that I went through the same thing. When I was a chef in my 20’s it was all about the guest and the food and the provocative and all that. It really wasn’t until my son was born, when I became a Dad, that I stated paying any attention whatsoever to nutrition.
Now today I find myself employing Millennials that don’t know how to take care of themselves. I mean sure, they cook and some of them are very passionate about food in their own lives. I’m being very careful here with my words, I’m not throwing shade on the whole thing. There’s just a few bad apples.
FG: People who work for Michael, he’s not bad-mouthing all of you! There’s that few…
MS: The bad apples are gone, they cull themselves.
FG: Yes, they do, don’t they!
MS: They can’t keep up. They can’t keep up physically, they can’t keep up mentally. They start externalizing from themselves. All the problems are external to themselves, they don’t take personal responsibility.
It can be really interesting.
FG: It’s funny, because one of my favourite lines in the introduction [of Real Food, Real Good], you talk about the need for real food, you talk about a ‘lightness of being’, an energy.
MS: Yes, yes.
FG: I think that’s the first time I’ve ever read that in a book that isn’t a ‘woo-woo’ vegan cookbook.
FG: Because a lot of that’s out there. It’s the first time I’ve read somebody that, the way that you cook is very grounded in omnivore cooking. So I loved reading that, that ‘lightness of being’.
MS: Well, I feel it. I live this, in general. When I’m on the road, that’s when it’s hard for me. Not everywhere, like I had a really nice lunch today. I get my vegetables, all good. But there are times – depending on where I am or what I’m doing – where I have to endure day, after day, after day of heavy food. And I feel it, and it reminds me of how important this is.
I know plenty of people who’ve had that epiphany in their lives and CHANGED their lives. And they’ve woken up the next day and are blown away by how much better they feel. It’s astonishing how important this is. It’s incredibly important here.
You can change your LIFE. Not weighing yourself down with all this added sugar, all these chemicals, all these things that are not fully understood.
FG: And they don’t assimilate into the body.
MS: NO. They just create havoc and leave.
FG: Especially for little brains. They just don’t make all those little connections.
FG: I wanted to wrap up this part of the interview with a question that is near and dear to my heart. This is a VERY difficult industry; it can chew you up and spit you out. You’re a very passionate man, so I wondered — if you’d never had the success you’ve had if you’d never written a book if you’d never had any television success, if you were still struggling to make ends meet, still in the kitchen and having a difficult time — would you still be in food?
MS: I think so. I think so… I know at heart what drives me is a desire to create experiences for other people. As a restaurateur now, more than just a chef, that’s what excites me. I really treasure that. I really sweat the details.
I guess what I mean by that, is that hospitality is in me. It’s how I’m wired. So, yea, I think I would be.
It’s rhetorical of course, so hard to answer accurately. But I guess I could say that my core values wouldn’t change. You know, who I am as a person wouldn’t change. I didn’t become ethically, or socially, or morally motivated because I’m a chef. It would be the reverse, right?
So, I think I’d hold on to my values, and I know I love making great experiences for other people. Putting them at ease, feeding them. I love that.
FG: People often ask me why I’m in food, I always say “I have a deep need to feed“. I LOVE to feed people. It’s what I do whether it’s with food for photos or with words. That nourishing of mind, body, soul becomes a huge part of life. And it’s who you are.
MS: It is, It is. I think in essence, in any vocation, in any calling, in any career – the folks that really succeed are the ones that found who they are. Then they found a way to express that through their work.
FG: Oh, that’s brilliant. I like that.
MS: Well, think of it… it’s so logical, right? If you’re in touch and in tune with who you are as a person and you manifest that through your career – everything clicks. It all makes sense.
FG: I think that’s when you stop struggling. Even if you might be having difficulty financially, or in your relationship. That’s when you stop struggling when you truly know that you’re in the right place at the right time. Thank you for that.
Rapid Fire / Fun Stuff
FG: OK, so to wrap things up we’re going to do a quick rapid-fire section. Ten questions as quickly as we can. Ready?!
MS: Let’s do it!
1. First chef you ever worked under?
MS: His name was Brett Fairbanks, at a Convention center in Rochester, New York.
2. Favorite go-to treat?
MS: French fries! (with a smile…)
3. Most important skill in the kitchen?
4. For breakfast, waffles or pancakes?
MS: PANCAKES. That’s funny because that’s a BIG debate in my house every Saturday morning. Is it waffles or pancakes?
5. When you’re kickin’ back, beer or wine?
MS: Beer. Love my IPAs, I love big, hoppy beers.
6. Besides your knives, favourite tool in the kitchen?
MS: Spoon. Tasting.
7. Favorite ingredient of the moment?
MS: Ummmmm… what would it be right now? Right now, fresh tomatoes. Oh, and Blue Fin Tuna. It’s tuna season in PEI.
8. The recipe your kids love the most, that’s published?
MS: Pancakes (Oatmeal Pancakes with Bacon Maple Syrup, page 36, Real Food, Real Good) . Oh yea. It’s part of our ritual.
9. Fill in the blank: When you’re visiting PEI don’t’ miss the _____.
10. Food bloggers – love ‘em, hate ‘em, tolerate ‘em?
MS: Love ‘em!!! Hey, anybody who’s adding to the conversation around food, we’re all in this together. Are you kidding?!
I don’t get it, the old guard media running scared, throwing shade on the new without really understanding how social media works and all that other stuff. I just don’t get it. We see resistance to disruption in all industries all the time. I understand the physiology behind it, but look around us there are whole buildings in this town empty, that used to be filled with media because the media just couldn’t get into the new headspace. They couldn’t embrace social media. So… I love food bloggers.
Thank you to Chef Michael Smith for his time and this thought-provoking exchange. As I left I had the feeling that he was about to make a difference in the lives of many. I hope you are one of them.
Live, Love, EAT REAL FOOD.
UPDATE: Thank you to those who commented before October 3, 2016, you were entered to win a copy of Real Food, Real Good. And our winner is (drum roll please): Laura B. Thank you for reading (& listening) – keep it real!