Chef Michael Smith dishes on P.E.I.
Home turf travel tips from Canada's tallest freestanding chef
Editor’s note: Given that 2014 is a big year for Prince Edward Island (150 years since the Charlottetown Conference that first introduced the concept of Canada as a nation) we thought we’d follow our last post with another nod to Canada’s Gentle Island. This time round? Well, ever since meeting Chef Michael Smith during a visit last fall, we’ve been angling to feature him on our pages. So here he is – the man who’s been referred to as “the world’s tallest freestanding chef” (he’s 6’7″) – offering up a little local knowledge about the place he passionately calls home.
T&C: What is it about P.E.I. that seduced you, a guy born in New York City and an honours graduate from the Culinary Institute of America?
Michael: I’m a country guy at heart, not a city guy. When people ask me where I live, I tell them I live on a giant green farm full of flavour, floating in the deep blue sea surrounded by white sandy beaches. I live in a community of farmers and fishermen and I can say honestly I feel damned lucky to live and work where I do – especially as a foodie, a chef and a food media producer.
T&C: Okay, you’ve got friends coming to visit. What are you going to do with them?
Michael: In no particular order, I would suggest Basin Head Beach, famous for its singing sands. Certainly the best beach on the island and quite possibly the best beach in Canada. It’s a rite of passage for locals to jump off the bridge over the run at Basin Head and it’s always a ton of fun to do this with folks “from away.”
Glasgow Glen Farm is something new and totally worth checking out. The guy behind it is Jeff McCourt – a longtime island chef who’s helmed many a kitchen and who’s specializing in artisan cheese production. Jeff is part of a fascinating trend where chefs are packing in their knives and jumping over to artisan food. He’s a family guy, so his whole operation will be family-friendly. There’s a wood-burning pizza oven and it’ll be a place where everyone can hang for the whole day.
Also, my family likes to head out on the water with our friend Darren MacKinnon, who runs Paradise By the Sea Adventures. He’s a third-generation fisherman so you learn a lot when you’re out there with him. It’s all very participatory. You’ll go digging for clams or you’ll learn about the history of lobster fishing. The boat is kitted out for a good time. Water toys. Fishing gear. It’s all about tailoring the experience to what you want to do. He’s a great sea captain.
T&C: Any other Chef Smith-endorsed P.E.I. recommendations?
Michael: Well, you know that image you have in your head when you think of the perfect, old-fashioned fishing village? North Lake Harbour is that times 10 – a classic P.E.I. working harbour. Go in August during bluefin tuna season. There’s nothing more exciting than watching a boat come down the run pulling a bluefin tuna behind it. You get to watch them hoist the fish off the boat and hang it. Local kids come down and get their photos taken with the fish. They can touch the fish, look in their mouths and poke them in the eyes. These fishermen are incredible ambassadors for the industry. They use a rod and reel, which is how you sustain any fish. They’re not the guys who are netting the fish who have ruined the industry. I feel pretty strongly about this. But I won’t get started…
Confederation Trail is also worth flagging. I’ve ridden my bike all over the globe and this is one of the world’s most beautiful trail systems. The trails wind their way around the island. They’re not too worried about going in a straight line. You can go backcountry through the woods, which offers a unique perspective on P.E.I., or you can bike along the water. One of the most beautiful sections is the one between St. Peters and Morell. There, you’ve got the mussel industry in St. Peter’s Bay right in front of you.
If you have a young family or you’re just someone interested in trains – you should check out the Elmira Railway Museum & Miniature Railway, which is kind of like our own little Disneyland. The kids can ride a mechanics car. There’s a model railroad in the woods. And they’ve got a giant model of the island that is 50 feet long tip to tip. There’s a grassroots community behind this operation doing its darndest to make it fun.
T&C: Food is your life’s work. Can you recommend a handful of island eateries for hungry travellers to check out?
Michael: If people are coming to P.E.I. they HAVE to eat oysters and mussels and lobster. They should definitely attend one of our church lobster suppers. Just google P.E.I. church suppers and you’ll see what I mean. They’re a lot of fun and a great tradition. For oysters, I’d send them to Terre Rouge in Charlottetown. We love it there. It’s very relaxed and casual. For mussels, I’d recommend Clamdiggers in Georgetown. Georgetown is a cool little up-and-coming community. Clamdiggers is in a beautiful building, an old train station. It’s impeccable, has a solid contemporary menu and is run by a crackerjack chef.
If you’re looking for a party, I’d recommend the Olde Dublin Pub in downtown Charlottetown. They’ve always got good maritime music – traditional and contemporary. If decent coffee – ethically sourced and locally roasted – is what you’re after, check out Youngfolk and The Kettle Black, a quirky little joint smack in the middle of, again, Charlottetown.
T&C: Any other thoughts on running an international culinary business from Canada’s smallest island?
Michael: In this day and age, you can work wherever you want to. All you need is a strong Internet connection and access to an airport. I’ve been a Canadian citizen for 15 years now and I can say very emphatically that my values are up here. There’s a traditional way to life on P.E.I. – where eating locally, for example, isn’t trendy, it’s just how things are done. So many of us are in the big city chasing our tails. What are we doing this for?
T&C: We just posted a story on where to find the perfect lobster roll. Any thoughts on what makes or breaks P.E.I.’s most famous sandwich?
Michael: It’s got to be fresh. That lobster had better have been swimming in the ocean that morning.