Smith comes out swinging against processed food

‘We have the allergies and the health issues we do because we’re eating garbage,’ chef Michael Smith observes. ‘In North America, … we eat more processed food than the rest of the world put together.’

At six feet seven inches tall, chef Michael Smith, 45, commands a room by virtue of his size. That he also drives points home with gesticulation, by “telling it like it is,” and occasionally punctuating his message with a slightly naughty word to keep us tuned in, makes his delivery all the more noticeable.

And his warnings about our unhealthy relationship with food are definitely well-taken.

In fact, the New York-born chef who calls Prince Edward Island home, who long ago eschewed fancy fine dining to cook “real food” for his family, minces no words when it comes to exploring the contradictions of our society consumed with, say, lavish full-colour cookbooks on one hand, yet refusing to cook on the other.

He questions why people with access to some of the most wholesome and fresh food on Earth would choose to serve frozen, processed and dehydrated chemicals from a box.

He challenges a Facebook world where friends are confused with happy faces in an online comment box. “That’s bulls–t,” he says flatly. “Friends are real people you can count on in the real world, they’re not a thumbs-up somewhere in cyberspace.”

If we have lost our way, Smith says, it’s because technology has eclipsed our capacity as humans to adapt.

He wasn’t pussyfooting when I caught up with the celebrity chef last week at the packed evening opening of the Ottawa International Writers Festival at Sidedoor restaurant, hosted by executive chef Jonathan Korecki who holds similar views about cooking with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.

And the message came through loud and clear again the next day, this time before a class of 80 culinary arts students at Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School in Barrhaven.

As always, Smith was plain-spoken:

• We’re killing ourselves with processed food. Parents have a responsibility to feed real meals to their children, and anything less amounts to laziness if not long-term child abuse;

• The popularity of food television, he says, can be traced back to the fact people who don’t cook must get their thrills vicariously by watching someone else do it;

• Food is always best in its own time and place;

• Cheffing is an honourable and satisfying career, but it’s not about becoming a rock star on television — it’s about connecting with the land and pleasing others at the table.

Here are some of Smith’s edited remarks:

“One of the greatest things missing from our food today is the opportunity to look someone in the eye who produces the food, who cooks the food. It’s very powerful to know somebody who produces the food, who gets up early and gets their hands dirty,” Smith told the writers’ festival.

“That was Lesson One for me that took a while to sink in, but once it did it fundamentally changed the way I cook. It was no longer about rock-hard red tomatoes in a box from California, it was about real Fulton’s tomatoes (grown close to home) where you bite in and the juice runs down your wrist … I think all of us as chefs get to a point where we grow up a little, when we realize that it’s not about us at all …

“Too many of us have got ourselves caught up in the idea we can’t cook, or we’re too busy, or I don’t know how. We have more food media than ever, we love food and blogs and websites and we love the Food Network. … But we’re consuming all this food media for the vicarious thrill. We watch Food Network when we don’t cook to get that thrill of what it’s like to cook. … The simple fact is that, for most of us, food media fill a hole in our soul.”

Nor was the star of five TV shows and author of six cookbooks any more reserved the next day before an audience of high school students. Among his points, Smith insists there’s a “direct correlation” between processed foods and so many health ailments in today’s modern world.

“Why is it that in North America we have more allergies, more diabetes, more obesity, more heart disease, all kinds of cancers … and at the same time we eat more processed food than the rest of the world put together?” he asks. “There is a direct correlation, and that’s why we have the allergies and the health issues we do — because we’re eating garbage …

“Part of our challenge is to help the world understand that food is not scary, cooking is not a big deal. You peel, chop, slice and dice, you add a bit of heat and you eat. Big deal.

“One of the reasons my show Chef at Home has done so well is because I am cooking for my family. So many of us have convinced ourselves we don’t have time to cook, so we watch Chef at Home. Your brain is incapable of telling the difference between what it sees on TV and what it experiences in real life.

“I’m not here to piss you off, I’m not here to scold you … I’m here to take you on a path, to get your attention. You need to be part of the solution and not the problem.”

High School culinary instructor Kent Van Dyk says Smith’s visit was arranged through the school board and the writers’ festival. “What an excellent opportunity it is for the kids to hear a renowned chef, cookbook author and TV show personality, and someone who’s a big proponent of eating locally and sustainably — all those things I try to preach in class.

“I hope this program is at least making them realize that cooking isn’t hard to do. With some common sense and a few basic skills, you can put good food on the table,” Van Dyk says.

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