Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
FORTUNE, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — Michael Smith doesn’t need any more kudos. He’s accomplished just about everything a chef can in Canada — including overseeing the food program for athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics and selling more cookbooks than anyone else in the country during the past 15 years.
Smith, though, deserves praise for doing the absolute right thing when it comes to honouring farmers who produce food for his dining guests and making sure those guests have a connection to the land and the food they consume. So, Smith will get one more nod of appreciation — a minor one. His Inn at Bay Fortune is, in my opinion, the leading culinary experience in Canada. One every Canadian should partake in because of how meticulously Smith and his team executes a program where the star is your food — and where it comes from.
“The world needs more of this,” Smith says about the family-style dining at his establishment, an experience called the Feast at FireWorks, the name of the Inn at Bay Fortune restaurant.
Beyond the reality-TV shows that have made him famous, Smith has long been one of Canada’s strongest advocates for better eating habits. His #HalfYourPlate initiative encourages us to fill 50 per cent of our meals with fruits and vegetables, thereby consuming less meat. He chastises parents for feeding children processed foods and sugary treats. And he talks openly about the animals on his farm and where they will eventually end up.
“Yes, these pigs are going to be eaten, and I want the people who come here to know that they will be consumed,” he says, while leading a group to a pen where four young pigs are residing. In a year, Smith points out they will each weigh about 450 pounds and will be ready for his kitchen. In the meantime, their diet is monitored and their feed includes high-quality proteins and minerals. “I want the chefs and guests to bond with these pigs because that’s the reality of life and cooking. When we avoid talking about death we end up eating commodity meat. And that’s meat raised with one metric in mind and that’s price.”
The Inn at Bay Fortune is where Smith became famous. An immigrant from New York, Smith fell in love with Prince Edward Island when he arrived in the late 1990s. He showcased its culinary riches on a variety of Food Network Canada programs that sent his notoriety soaring. Although he has often worked away from PEI, he has never left.
PEI’s Inn at Bay Fortune Shines
Smith maintains a home not far from the inn and for years has been the most vocal proponent of PEI’s life and culinary bounty. Now, he has put those assets on a grand stage in Bay Fortune.
He and his wife, Chastity, took over the property in 2015. They revamped the interior, creating luxury accommodations with contemporary decor that evokes the maritime culture of Canada’s smallest province. The inn dates to the mid-20th century and has hosted Hollywood icons from decades past as well as served as a proving ground for some of the nation’s top culinary talent.
It was always a very good restaurant. Now, the Inn at Bay Fortune is a world-class culinary destination. It’s only open 144 nights a year and welcomes 64 guests per evening. The food is cooked primarily on the open flame of a 25-foot fire pit kindled using mostly maple and birch wood.
“My first time here I thought I knew everything and I really didn’t. Now this is a reflection of what I believe dining should be, with the family-style menu and with everything being from right here. We grow it all, source it all from here — except for lemons, limes and oranges,” Smith says.
There are other chefs, farmers and restaurateurs who do this form of experiential dining in Canada. Michael Stadtlander’s Eigensinn Farm in Ontario is the forbearer while operations such as Backyard Farm in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and The Bite House in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island are far smaller versions of the farm-to-fork concept. Smith, though, elevates the idea with the accommodations, the farm tour and the oyster hour, where shuckers open and dress about 300 bivalves in 60 minutes for diners. The oyster bar is one of four food stations set up on the grounds of the inn prior to the five-course seated dinner. Cocktail stations greet guests upon arrival, too.
And Smith — all 6-foot-7-inches of him — is everywhere. He leads the tours of the property, he kicks off the dinner with a toast on the lawn to the farmers who helped bring the food to the table, and he’s active in the kitchen, even tossing salad at the pass. The inn’s dining experience isn’t perfect. The wine list is thin and the quality of service, while friendly and professional, lacks the attention to detail diners will expect from an iconic restaurant.
Smith admits, “H.R. is the hardest thing but we are lucky because we do have a good reputation so chefs want to come work with us. But some of the other roles can be a bit of a challenge.”
Sous chef Cody Wallace previously worked at Fishbones, a favourite spot in Charlottetown. He chose to join Smith for the 2017 season because he recognized the extraordinary food program that had been developed.
“I followed my farmers here,” jokes Wallace, noting Smith had recruited food suppliers who provided him with ingredients at his prior job. “This is a chef’s dream. And honestly that’s why I’m here. It’s for the inn and what we can do with food.”
Wallace noted that Smith tries to keep his celebrity status from overshadowing the food program. If anything, it seems Smith is trying to leverage his celebrity in order to push attention onto his suppliers. He’s also genuinely keen to keep learning. He leads the kitchen team’s foraging trips around Bay Fortune and is introducing new ingredients into his regimen. “There are dozens of types of edible seaweed on the island and they’re really healthy for you. We’re starting to incorporate them for the first time. Bull kelp is as sweet as honey in August. Who knew? I didn’t know,” he says, incredulous at this new knowledge he acquired.
“We want to rediscover, reimagine and reinvigorate the food ways of the past.” Smith talks with passion about his desire to change the dining rituals in North America.
While his approach to cooking has evolved from his first stop at the inn, the impression he has made on PEI endures. Carol Macleod, who sold lamb to Smith when he first started as the executive chef two decades ago, told me the culinary star has retained many of his endearing qualities.
“He’s the exact same person as he was then. He’s still warm and friendly,” she says while standing in the garden blooming with vegetables and herbs. “He loves PEI so much and anyone who loves our island the way he does is loved by us.”
MORE ABOUT THE INN AT BAY FORTUNE
Location: 758 Route 310, Fortune Bridge, PEI (see map below)
Dining Reservations: Bookings can be made online or by telephoning 1-888-687-3745. The cost for the Feast at FireWorks is $125 per person (including hospitality fee); a $75 wine pairing is available for the five courses.
Lodging Rates: Rooms range from $275-$475 per night and include breakfast. There are 15 guest rooms on the property.
“Inspired Cooking” Project: Michael Smith is one of 20 leading chefs from across Canada featured in “Inspired Cooking,” whose proceeds benefit InspireHealth, a non-profit cancer-care agency. The cookbook was inspired by Julia Pelish-Brijbassi, Vacay.ca’s co-founder who passed away from cancer in 2016. “Inspired Cooking” (Fresh Air Publishing) was edited by her husband, Vacay.ca Editor Adrian Brijbassi, and produced by Vacay.ca’s team of food and travel journalists.