Scene Stealer: Profiling chef Michael Howell


Actor turned chef Michael Howell enjoys his second act as owner of Nova Scotia’s Tempest restaurant

Michael Howell was five when his dad tragically drowned. Interestingly, his father was a sea captain who signed on as a cook on his last trip. “There’s a terribly deep poignancy that I’ve become a chef, and on his last voyage he was the chef.”

It turns out the toque has been on a culinary voyage, too, travelling to Toronto, Chicago, Bah- amas, Boston and Detroit, before settling in Wolfville, N.S., to open Tempest restaurant where he now helms the kitchen, serving global cuisine.

Favourite kitchen tool: Japanese mandoline

But, the backdrop to Howell’s success is about more than menus, plating and learning lines. Prior to cooking, he memorized lines, cues and exits. “I was a career changer at 30,” says the former Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Shaw Festival actor and director. The epiphany came during a live show. “I was on stage performing Major Barbara and a light bulb went off with 900 people in the theatre,” he says. “I [thought] I’m not here, my character’s not here, I’m just going through the motions.” In fact, at that moment, he realized he was thinking about food and a career in the culinary arts.

Before long Howell enrolled in the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC), and a month shy of graduating, a phone call from Chicago’s famed Everest Room launched his culinary career. “Some-body had referred me, and chef Jean Joho called to offer me a job. I realized time was of the essence. I was 30, and I really wanted to get into a kitchen as soon as possible.”

Biggest inspiration: chef Charlie Trotter

Howell’s career dance continued when famed chef Rocco DiSpirito offered him a gig in New York. He ended up turning down the low-paying job at Union Pacific. Instead, Howell used the Zagat restaurant guide to scout potential jobs, landing at Carol’s Café on Staten Island, working alongside Carol Frazetta, a feisty 65-year-old Sicilian. “I figured what better place to learn Italian than from the real deal.”

Years later his big-city credits paid off when he became head chef at a restaurant in Abaco, Bahamas where he was eventually named best chef on the island by the Nassau Food and Wine Society.

Today the author and leader of Slow Food Nova Scotia, is cooking his own version of Italian fare at Tempest, which features braised-rabbit rigatoni in garlic tomato sauce ($17), agnolotti with squash and mascarpone, sage-butter sauce ($17) and roasted Nova Scotia sea bass, Sicilian zupetta, white-bean purée ($25).

Favourite ingredient: smoked haddock

Reflecting on his career swap, Howell believes the skills he transferred are unique. “An artistic sensibility is probably the most important thing. I have an eye for art, creatively orchestrating not just what’s on a plate, but also the movement in a kitchen and understanding how people work together,” he says.

As for his next act, the chef is intent on satisfying his culinary soul by continuing his foodie tours of Italy and working on his next book. Perhaps, he’ll even reclaim his Great Canadian Grilled Cheese Champion title, awarded two years ago in Toronto. Perhaps that’s an honour that’s good for anyone’s soul.           

Comfort food you cook at home: pizza — “I made four different kinds one night last week”

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