When chef Michael Smith and his wife Chastity assumed ownership of The Inn at Bay Fortune in P.E.I. eight years ago, they knew they wanted it to be different. Smith has long been advocating for better work environments in restaurants and challenging some of the systems that are broken in the industry.
“Our industry is rife with stories of negative role models, where the end justifies the means,” says Smith, Foodservice and Hospitality magazine’s Chef of the Year. “That’s the kind of attitude that I eliminated from my work culture when we opened the Inn. We’re trying to be a bastion of light — to show it can be done and done well — that good people can collaborate and learn from each other and not be driven by stress and fear.”
That realization did not come easily. Early in his cooking career, Smith worked at some of the top restaurants in the U.S. and it nearly broke him. “I learned that whole culture. I lived it and it was very real — and I was I near broken by that experience. It was profound and I didn’t really see the point,” says Smith. “I wanted more. I didn’t really know what I wanted but I knew [what I was doing] wasn’t enough and I found myself wanting to move out the country, plant a garden and meet some farmers.”
So, at the age of 22, Smith enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. “That was what took me from this random happenstance career that I stumbled onto, to the understanding that there’s this huge world here that I can be a part of.”
His journey of discovery took him to Prince Edward Island, where he says he was immediately drawn to the province’s untapped potential. “P.E.I. is among the world’s great places to be a cook. The agriculture, the scene, the foraging and the confluence of things here, all of it is invaluable.”
At that time, the original owner of the Inn at Bay Fortune, David Wilmer, took a chance on Smith, allowing him to pivot the property to a fine-dining restaurant that could become a destination of sorts.
“We were just a bunch of punk kids working hard,” he says of his team at the Inn. “We routinely worked 80-hour weeks and we burnt ourselves out. But we were part of something without knowing it. We knew we were honouring Prince Edward Island and that felt really good. Then I started to learn unexpected life lessons, one of the biggest being the sheer emotion of meeting a human being, hearing their story and seeing it in their ingredient, whether they’re a farmer or fisherman, and coming to understand it. And then understanding their passion, their integrity — that was quite striking — because I hadn’t made that connection yet, that human beings are behind good food.”
That lesson changed his entire approach to cooking — and to life. He spent 17 years simultaneously appearing on television, writing books and travelling the world, but he says becoming a dad and a home cook changed him dramatically. “That’s where I finally learned the real context of food. And that’s the energy that we brought to the Inn at Bay Fortune — that understanding of the full context of food, anchored in communities and focused on the health of the individual family environment. I grew up, basically, and I’m grateful for that, because that’s what brought us to the new way of doing things at the Inn.”
The new way began with changing the narrative around work-life balance. “We learned so much about that the last couple of years,” says the father of three, adding he wishes someone would have had this discussion with him early on in his career. “I wish someone had told me to make that a priority in a kitchen environment. That’s it’s okay, you’re human, you should have balance, you can’t just have work. We worked 80 hours a week, we supported each other, but it was still very unhealthy.”
He says his new mantra is, “life comes first,” and “what I do professionally is always a refelction of who I am personally. I’m extremely proud what Chastity and I have done the last eight years with the Inn in terms of life-work balance and mental health.”
Bruce McAdams, associate professor, School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, University of Guelph says Smith “is both a visionary and a leader, by example and through his advocating for the industry. As a chef, he understands that hospitality is also about being a great employer — it’s not just about cooking.”
“Being a chef has an element of leadership to it, you have to assume the mantle and lead,” says Smith. “I didn’t know that I had those qualities, but being a chef has shown me what I can do as a leader. And naturally, like in anything else, I’ve grown, I’ve learned, and along the way, I know that my capacity for extremely hard work and never giving up, has always been part of that leadership style.”
Staying true to his ethics, and not being afraid to express them as a leader, has always been key for Smith. “My parents raised a good guy,” he jokes, “and I want to surround myself with good energy.”
He believes leadership is rooted in coming to understand current work culture and the deficiency of past work culture. “And seeing that we, our business, are in a position to lead. It’s about having vision and constantly seeing a new way forward.”
As Smith looks forward to the future of Inn at Bay Fortune, he and his wife are excited about the next chapter, which includes a new 12-seat farmhouse restaurant. “We’ll build it right in the middle of our farm and take advantage of the impeccable diversity and quality of what we’re growing now. We’re literally growing hundreds and hundreds of different things every season. And we have the best terroir you can ever imagine.”
He’s also looking forward to the post-pandemic return of the Village Feast, a summer highlight in the area that has raised funds for both local and global projects for the past 12 years. To date, the annual event, which serves a sit-down dinner for 1,000 people, has helped build 17 cook houses in rural Kenya, all of them with fully functional, fully endowed gardens, which produce about a million meals a year.
Closer to home, at the time of this interview, P.E.I. was still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Fiona, which left the island without power for weeks. The Inn opened its doors to feed its neighbours, staff and their families. The list of Smith’s community involvement is too long to cover, but he shies away from recognition. “You help people because that’s the right thing. It’s not that big a deal. We’re in a position to help, we realized that immediately.”
Back in the kitchen, Smith has inspired many young people to enter the restaurant industry and has acted as a role model for the next generation of chefs. As a mentor to many, he has this piece of advice for aspiring young chefs.
“My advice is to 100 per cent align yourself with an environment of teaching and learning. The end does not justify the means if you’re not learning. If you’re not being seen as a human being, being respected and taught, then move. Go. Life is precious. I’m part of a dynamic atmosphere around me that’s innovative, constantly pushing forward and genuine all at the same time. So that’s my advice — find yourself an environment where you can be seen and truly learn.”
BY AMY BOSTOCK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY AL DOUGLAS