A well-travelled chef and genuine family man, promoting good old-fashioned values like homemade healthy meals around the kitchen table
Chef Michael Smith is a culinary giant in Canada, and it’s not just because he’s a towering 6-foot, 7-inches tall.
The mile-high visibility that Smith enjoys stems from having hosted cooking shows seen in more than 100 countries, written several well-received cookbooks, served as Chef for the Whistler Athletes Village at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C., and acted as food ambassador for Prince Edward Island, where he lives with his wife Chastity, and their children Gabe, Ariella and Camille.
Despite his jam-packed schedule, Smith still finds time to sit down to a family dinner, a ritual he says is “of fundamental importance” to the growth and development of his busy brood. He decries the growing prevalence of processed food, instead promoting sustainable eating.
Those daily gatherings around the table are now the inspiration for his eighth cookbook — Family Meals – which is packed with simple and delicious recipes for hearty, wholesome food.
Family Meals been a long time in coming, says Smith. For years, fans had been asking when he was going to write a family-oriented cook book. Smith resisted.
“I wasn’t saying it out loud, but I’m thinking that even though I’m a chef and my kids eat good food, I don’t really have it all figured out, and that my life is as chaotic as anybody’s!” says Smith.
The “light bulb moment” came when Smith grasped that he was never going to be an expert on how to feed children. And that he was okay with that.
“Somewhere along the line, I realized that I’m never going to have it all figured out, any more than any parent is. In fact, it bugs me that we have a society and media culture that dangles this unrealistic expectation – the parental expert. None of us are,” he says.
So instead of pushing the notion of perfection, Smith decided to write a book in which he could share simple strategies he’s learned about cooking delicious, but uncomplicated family meals.
He was able to do that, he says, in part, because his own attitude toward food has become more relaxed.
“In earlier episodes of my shows you would find me saying that’s the perfect way to do it,” he explains. “But I’ve grown as a dad, as a person, and I know there is no such thing as perfect, and that striving for it can really put people off their game.”
While he doesn’t think faultless meals should be the benchmark for family meals, Smith has, however, a low tolerance for processed foods.
“It’s a bad idea,” he says. “We have made some poor choices as a society by allowing Big Food Inc. to sit around the boardroom table, order up the railroad cars of chemicals and feed us. That needs to change, and it is changing.”
The real food
Smith says that making the decision to cook real food with real ingredients is half the battle in cooking for a family. “Once we do that, we’re successful. The rest of it will sort itself out.”
While Smith thinks healthy food is important, the time eating together is just as significant. “It’s way more important who’s at the table than what’s on the table.”
For those who cite lack of time as a reason to forgo gathering around the table, Smith has some sobering advice.
“If you are living the kind of life where you have convinced yourself that you are too busy for the most fundamental thing of all – to sit down and eat dinner with your kids – then take a harder look at how you are organizing yourself and figure it out.”
Getting children involved in cooking is a great way to connect with them, says Smith, and provides a space in which they learn valuable lessons.
He recounts a story that says much about his own parenting skills. One morning, the family was making pancakes together when his daughter Ariella accidentally dropped an egg on the floor.
“For her, it was as if her world came crashing down; she thinks she’s screwed it up, done something terrible. So I just grabbed a few more eggs and dropped them on the floor. I showed her it’s no big deal, it’s not the end of the world. Mistakes happen, we move on.”
Cooking with kids is also a great way for grandparents to bond with their grandchildren, says Smith. “Just invite them into the process. It doesn’t have to be elaborate and crazy. It can be pancakes. But what a great opportunity to connect with them.”
Children can also be a source of inspiration and new ideas in the kitchen. It was, for example, son Gabe who came up with a solution when Smith couldn’t find a bulk source for the dried Ramon noodles he needed for a recipe. Gabe asked why they couldn’t use the packaged noodles and throw away the little flavour pack?
“I was so hung up on the problem, and he just saw a really simple solution,” says Smith.
Family Meals is loaded with other quick tips for making meals fun and flavourful, and for organizing a family-friendly kitchen. It’s also peppered with full-page shots of the recipes and a picture index at the end of the book.
Smith is proud that while “a ton of effort went into those pictures” there were no food-styling tricks used.
“The pictures are meant not just to show you what the recipes could look like but to inspire you to attempt the recipe at all. If it has that perfect look, I just don’t think it’s inviting. I think it needs to look real.”
Smith has an equally casual approach to kitchen tools and implements, and says that a few basics are all that’s really necessary. “We’re taught you have to have all the weird little tools for that one time of year when you use it. It’s hooey, frankly. I go back to the same basic tools over and over.”
And the cookware
While Smith insists that the successful home cook doesn’t need a dazzling array of pots and pans, he does have a soft spot for Paderno, the well-known line of cookware manufactured in PEI. He recently teamed with the company on an 11-piece cookware set that was sold through The Shopping Channel in Canada (tsc.ca).
“It’s about supporting a good solid Island company that makes incredible pots, right here,” says Smith. “I wanted to work with them because I believe in this company, and I believe in my neighbours. It seems to me, part of being Canadian is to care about your community. That’s just how we live our lives.”
For more information on Chef Michael Smith’s cookbooks and homegrown philosophy of food, go to chefmichaelsmith.com