Order Up: Celebrity chef and accidental activist Michael Smith has whetted global appetites for P.E.I. food flavours and created a culinary tourism industry in the process
The New York-born, Prince Edward Island-based celebrity chef, Michael Smith – prodigious writer of cookbooks, conscientious host of television shows and cheerful agitator for all things wholesomely food related does not consider himself an inventor. Not by any stretch. Pioneer, perhaps. But creator of something where nothing before existed? He balks charmingly at the suggestion.
On the phone from his digs in Fortune, on the Island’s eastern shore – where he’s building a 1,500-square-foot headquarters to house the operations of his umbrella company Culinart Limited (which, when completed, will include offices for his four full-time staff, a photo studio and a test kitchen) – Smith speaks modestly about his unquestionable role in the province’s grand awakening, in recent years, to the economic potential of local agriculture and, by extension, food tourism.
“I may have been the first in the province,” he allows. “But we’re just a tiny place. I had already studied with the finest chefs in the world, and every single one of them was cooking with what was in their backyards. Here, nobody was doing that, which was surprising because there is such a bounty on the Island. There’s so much great stuff to cook with and nobody was standing up and saying, ‘Hey, we’re from P.E.I.’”
That this has changed is evident in the number of organic gardens and farmers’ markets that have sprung up like fresh broccoli all over the province since he arrived in 1992. And though he downplays his influence, he can’t deny that government types in P.E.I. consider him an essential ingredient in their recipe for economic development. He is, after all, the province’s official “food ambassador” spreading the good word about Island produce to travel-hungry foodies around the world. Indeed, the winner of the James Beard Award for Cooking Show Excellence led a high-profile team of chefs to the Vancouver Winter Games, where they ministered to some Olympian appetites as the cameras of the international press corps clicked away.
Smith, who graduated at the top of his class from the Big Apple-based Culinary Institute of America in 1991 and who has worked at some of the finest restaurants in Europe and the United States, keeps the spotlight on P.E.I. in other ways. His three cook books have been best sellers. His four TV shows on the Life Network and Food Network Canada have been smash hits among the culinarily inclined. And he remains a perennial favorite on the national speaking circuit. He has, he might say, come a long way in just 20 years.
“I left New York largely because I was craving a closer connection to what I was up to and what I was doing,” he says. “At the time, I was pretty intrigued with cuisine respecting time and place and the people around me. I came to P.E.I. one summer and, in a way, I really felt like I had come home.”
But if he didn’t immediately find that organic connection on the Island, he set about almost subconsciously changing attitudes. “I didn’t waste a whole lot of time thinking about it,” he insists. “I just got on with it and started building relationships with local food suppliers all over the Island. I was just being a chef the way I was taught.”
After a successful stint in the kitchen at The Inn at Bay Fortune (thanks to him the restaurant became one of Canada’s top 10), he started his business. Now, he’s planning the respective launches of another book and TV show and a web series later this year. “The new headquarters should be up and running on Oct. 1,” he says.
Inventor or pioneer? It hardly matters to Canada’s smallest province whose enlarged appetite for success waits patiently for new triumphs from the kitchen of Michael Smith.
By Alec Bruce