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Chef Michael Smith teaches cooks to stir personality into recipes in new book

09/23/2013 04:09 EDT | Updated 11/23/2013 05:12 EST
TORONTO - Chef Michael Smith is on a mission to inspire home cooks to get over any apprehension they may have when it comes to preparing meals for their families and friends and challenging them to make nutritious choices.

"Not to jump on the soapbox, but the reality of our country at the moment is that we're making a lot of poor decisions about food and ... we're putting a lot of pressure on (the health-care system) with a lot of poor food choices. We've come to believe that somehow processed food is a viable option, that it's OK to feed that crap to your kids and it's simply not," says Smith.

"Our No. 1 killer of Canadians are heart disease, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diseases of the heart. The No. 1 cause of that is salt and the No. 1 source of that salt is processed food. So there's a very real issue here."

He adds that too many people fear their cooking skills don't measure up or that they don't have time to prepare a meal, instead opting for convenience.

"Part of the solution and one of the biggest, most positive things you can do is just cook! Just cook! Real food! And it's not a difficult thing."

In Smith's new cookbook, "Back to Basics: 100 Simple Classic Recipes with a Twist" (Penguin), "the twists are kind of the essence of the book," he explains during a publicity stop in Toronto.

Smith, who has published "The Inn Chef," "Chef at Home" and "Chef Michael's Kitchen" and appeared on Food Network Canada shows of the same name, gives the basics for such recipes as salads, entrees, sides and sweets. Once home cooks are armed with this information they can then infuse the recipe with their own personality.

"The twists are very specific so they genuinely give you some good ideas on what you can do to modify if you care to, but they also serve a greater purpose, which is to remind people that cooking doesn't need to be this exact precise science. ...

"Maybe you do it differently than I do, but at the end of the day we're both cooking real food for our families and that's what matters."

If you don't have an ingredient, substitute without worrying you're creating a less-than-perfect version of the recipe.

Food doesn't have to be perfect, whether it's an apple with a blemish at the supermarket or a dish you've made that may fall short of a stunning magazine photo.

"I really strongly disagree with the notion of perfection in food. It's ruinous, it's harmful, it's non-existent to begin with," Smith says.

"We've lost tolerance for a little bit of Mother Nature's imperfection in the produce display. It's nuts and it forces our agricultural industry to put all their efforts and focus into a small niche of what they do, which is making uniformity their first and foremost goal instead of nutritional peak capacity in the food."

He also cites food shows that advocate perfection. "They're all talking about having the perfect ingredient, the perfect recipe, perfect dish, perfect chef, perfect kitchen, perfect restaurant, perfect this, that and the other thing. ...

"The other side of that coin is failure and that's where I really get irate. There's no failure in the kitchen. If you're making the choice to get real food and cook it and serve it to your family, you are successful, regardless of how it turns out," he says emphatically.

"A lot of the reason why I try to put people at ease with the notion of free-style cooking is that your goal is not necessarily to make it exactly the way I would make it. This is a starting point. It's not the finish line."

Smith was looking forward to returning to his home in the Bay of Fortune area of Prince Edward Island to take his three children — Gabe, 11, Ariella, 5, and Camille, 16 months — apple picking.

"Things like that, they really matter. It's life at its best."

A half-dozen years ago, Smith realized that his growing company was taking him away from cooking. "The well was running dry and I was losing my connection."

He reorganized things and is now out the office door each afternoon at 3 p.m. His commute is 30 metres, giving him time for an hour of yoga before getting dinner on the table at 5 p.m.

As the family's chief cook and bottle washer — and despite his culinary expertise — he understands how parents feel when faced with getting food on the table daily.

"It has shown me the relentlessness of it. I'm just like anybody else. We have a busy life and I love cooking, love it, and I never run out of ideas in the kitchen, but yes, there are times when I'm like, 'OK,'" he says with a huge sigh.

"But it's not an option. You have to do it. I would never, ever in a million years cop out and go for the processed food crap just to save myself some time. I couldn't live with myself. It's a very, very poor choice."

If he knows a day is going to be "wacky," he hauls out his slow cooker. Another appliance he relies on is his freezer. The summer harvest of berries is frozen and he plans to begin making apple sauce. "Camille's eating a lot of it now. I'll make two kinds — the heavy cinnamon for us and the plain, plain version for her."

Smith is one of the judges on "Chopped Canada," which is slated to premiere on Food Network Canada this winter, and he's hard at work on his next cookbook, which will focus on feeding a family.

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