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3 February 2023

Celebrity Chef Michael Smith On Culinary Farming & The Unique Terroir of PEI

Michael Smith is a renowned Canadian chef, cookbook author and television personality who has made a name for himself in the culinary world through his passion for simple, wholesome and delicious food. He was named the Foodservice and Hospitality’s 2022 Pinnacle Chef of the Year and was recently invested into the Order of Canada.

Over the course of his career, Chef Smith has established himself as a champion of home cooking, inspiring people all over the world to get in the kitchen and make meals from scratch. He is also a big proponent of regenerative agricultural practices, something he champions and educates people about from the Inn at Bay Fortune.

Chef Smith spoke with us about his Prince Edward Island business, culinary farming and what hospitality means to him.

Fire & Feast in PEI

If you are lucky enough to be invited to Chef Michael Smith’s home for dinner, it is very likely that at some point in the evening, you will find yourself outside by the fire.

“My all-time favourite thing to do if my buddies are coming for supper is to just build a fire in the backyard, let it die down and cook,” Chef Smith tells me from his home in Prince Edward Island.

While the famous chef says he’s not fussy about what actually goes into the meal — “for me, it’s not what’s at the table, it’s who’s at the table” — you can be sure it will be delicious and locally sourced. In fact, these days the ingredients for dinner are quite likely to come from the chef’s own culinary farm, which is located near Souris on PEI’s east coast.

In 2015, Chef Smith and his wife Chastity (Chazz) Smith purchased the Inn at Bay Fortune property — which contains the restaurant in which Chef Smith launched his Food Network career — and have spent the last 8 years turning it into one of the top culinary tourism destinations in Canada.

Not only can guests stay on the property in one of the luxurious rooms, but they also have access to the beautiful grounds, trails through the woods (Chef Smith says approximately 50 of the 75 acres are wooded) and the centrepiece of the property — the culinary farm and the restaurant that serves the nightly FireWorks Feast, prepared in the kitchen’s signature 25-foot wood-fired stove and oven.

It is here that Chef Smith’s passion for food and its power to connect people really comes through. The vision for Inn at Fortune Bay is about much more than cooking or eating delicious food, it is about transforming our relationship to the environment from which our food comes.

The FireWorks Feast, which is offered nightly from May to October, takes the notion of farm-to-table and supersizes it. Guests are taken on a culinary journey through the gardens where they can see regenerative agriculture in practice and taste it in real time. They eat with an understanding of the ingredients and their origins. And they leave with seed packets from the farm to be nurtured and planted in their own gardens.

“We know we are not going to change the world in one day, in one visit. But honestly, I spent far too much time in my career — far too much time — just talking about stuff. Observing it and talking about it, and I mean the things that need fixing. And finally Chazz and I just hit the point [where we said], ‘screw this, let’s just get up in the morning and do it’. And that’s what the Inn is.”

Related: Read Joe Baker’s first-hand account of the FireWorks Feast at the Inn at Bay Fortune.

Developing a Unique Terroir

Of the 75-acres of land that makes up the Inn at Fortune Bay property, 8 acres is used for the culinary farm that provides most of the ingredients used in the FireWorks Feast and in the gourmet breakfasts that are served to the guests. There are 5 greenhouses, a small orchard, raised farm beds and multiple herb gardens, all producing an astonishing 300 different fruits and vegetables.

The farm is rooted in regenerative agricultural practices, meaning that everything is done around creating and improving the soil in which the plants and vegetables are grown. It being a culinary farm, the focus is on flavour.

In charge of the farm is Farmer Kevin Petrie but every single person who works at the Inn also has jobs to do on the farm. This is done deliberately, Chef Smith tells me, to instil a sense of connection to the land.

“This culinary farm exists to teach, to learn. It transcends ‘let’s just produce vegetables.’ That’s rather trite, frankly. We don’t just have a farm out the back door. What a miss that would be to have all this incredible fresh, local product coming in through the back door — because it is still a door. They have to go out that door to connect. And they do. The way the days are structured, the way the work is structured here, every single cook spends time on that farm.”

This close connection between soil and kitchen has lead Chef Smith and his team to the discovery of something seriously cool: the farm’s unique terroir.

Terroir is a French term that is used to describe the environmental factors, such as soil and climate, that affect a crop’s taste. In the case of Chef Smith’s culinary farm, the unique terroir developed from years of meticulous nurturing of the soil in combination with the stellar growing conditions of Prince Edward Island.

When the farm started, the soil was neither good nor bad — it was just a neutral starting ground. But as the farm matured, so did the unique nature of the soil. Regenerative practices give nutrients back into the soil and, as the team soon discovered, the soil imparts its unique flavour into the crops producing outstanding taste.

“It’s maybe one of the most profound things that’s ever happened to me in my life, being a part of that terroir emerging,” Chef Smith said. 

When asked why he has such a deep focus on regenerative practices and education, Chef Smith says it is simple: “It’s the right thing to do.”

PEI’s Food Ambassador

Chef Smith has long been a culinary ambassador for Prince Edward Island — introducing the world to the province’s fertile soil, clean water and thriving food culture. He arrived on the island as a young chef and has stayed here because of the people.

“It’s a place of food people,” he says of PEI. “And that underlies everything. That’s the authenticity that surrounds me. All the great food destinations in the world, produce. Otherwise you’re in a city and that’s different. But for us, it’s about the real that’s around us. We are a place of food, we are a place that produces food. It’s our primary industry here. We fish, we farm, so it’s just ingrained in us. And that percolates, it ripples and that makes it a great place to cook.”

For inspiration, Chef Smith loves to head into the woods, a place he finds meditative, or forage for wild plants in PEI’s unique ecosystems. And he enjoys being in the thick of it at FireWorks restaurant, where he is known as the Firemaster.

And much like when he entertains at home, guests at the FireWorks Feast end the night roasting marshmallows around a fire. So even those of us who may not be lucky enough to get invited to Chef Smith’s dinner parties can still experience the magic of his hospitality.

“Hospitality is in us,” he says. “It’s just part of who we are as Canadians. We are humble and we are proud to share what we have. And that, coupled with the authenticity of food on Prince Edward Island, is what everyone is looking for these days.”

Related: Read more about PEI as a food destination in our post Exploring Canada’s Food Island