Chef Michael Smith: Back To East Coast Roots
Insight Michael Smith returns to Atlantic Canada to live, cook and eat!
Mediaplanet What makes Atlantic Canada’s culinary culture so unique?
Michael Smith I think at first glance, seafood is what makes it unique. As soon as you look a little deeper it’s not the presence, It’s not just the product — it’s the people. As Islanders, we all know the people who produce the food, and it makes the ingredients personal. They aren’t just commodities that arrive, you know the person and the story behind the product and it makes you a better cook.
"We are very aware of the people around us that work hard to produce food. You see them working around the clock and that is what puts passion into cooking."
MP How has living in PEI contributed to your passion for cooking?
MS When you live and work and play in PEI you are surrounded by people who get up early and produce food. You watch farmers on the field at 6am and fisherman who get on their boats at 3am to start work for the day. It creates a sense of pride and that pride is ingrained in us.
I live in Bay Fortune and around 19 boats fish out off Bay Fortune every morning. There is a 3am is rush hour on the water and you can actually follow the story of how the food is produced. It is not abstract. We are very aware of the people around us that work hard to produce food. You see them working around the clock and that is what puts passion into cooking.
MP What is your favourite culinary experience that one can only find in Atlantic Canada?
MS The village feast. It happens every year, this is actually the 9th year, and it is a massive community fundraiser. We raise enough funds every year to fully support our local food bank and we built a cook house in Kenya, nine cook houses actually, to feed hungry children. It is a steak dinner for 1000 people prepared and served outside. It is like a rock concert or a circus. An army of food lovers descends on PEI. Everything is cooked from scratch, every ingredient is locally produced in PEI. We also serve Githeri, which is a meal they serve in the cook houses in Kenya.
It is a huge chef event as well. Chefs fly in from all over to participate. In my opinion, this type of gathering could only exist in the Maritimes — it is unique to our culture — we look for different ways to take care of each other and we come together over food.
MP What’s one dish that a visitor shouldn’t leave without trying?
MS Classic, traditional, old fashioned chowder. I am on a mission myself to taste every chowder throughout the Maritimes. It is my favorite dish. It’s the sort of thing that goes back 50-60 years, where every Atlantic Canadian family knew how to make it. When the men got off the fishing boats, chowder was the warm, soothing meal they had to look forward to. It is easily made with local ingredients and can be learned in an afternoon — but takes a lifetime to master.
A good chowder has to have dairy, local fish and some kind of cured pork product, potatoes, never thickened with corn starch or flour. My favourite recipe starts with a big batch of steamed PEI mussels which help you create this rich, tasty broth.
MP How has Atlantic Canada’s culinary scene changed over the past few years? What new developments do we have to look forward to?
It has changed dramatically, it has caught up with the rest of the world. Expectations are sky high. We are surrounded by so many ethnic groups and ethnic restaurants. We have a flourishing food culture. We have come to appreciate how lucky we are with all of the unique resources around us. I recently purchased the Inn at Bay Fortune, which is the property that brought me to PEI. By building a wood-fire kitchen and serving a nightly feast for the guests, we are adding something unique to the world!