Legends can loom over a place long after they've gone. Dave Wilmer knows that better than anyone else on Prince Edward Island. The owner of the Inn at Bay Fortune still welcomes guests who expect him to be Michael Smith, the celebrity chef whose cookbooks and Food Network Canada TV shows have a massive following.
It's been nearly a decade since Smith cooked at the Inn at Bay Fortune and he was never the owner, but for many of his fans the 6-foot-7 chef is and always will be synonymous with the property.
"It's huge pressure. Every day I feel it," says Dominic Serio, the current chef at the highly regarded restaurant that features 17 rooms and one dynamite kitchen. "How can anyone fill Michael Smith's shoes?"
You could ask that literally, given Smith's physical stature. In the figurative sense, Wilmer has done a phenomenal job of creating a breeding ground for elite chefs. Those who have worked in the kitchen include: Craig Finn, now at Chives in Halifax; Renee Lalonde, well known in Atlantic Canada for her catering services and initiatives for championing local food; Gordon Bailey, the chef at Lot 30 in the provincial capital of Charlottetown; and Warren Barr of the Wickanninish Inn in Tofino, British Columbia.
It was Smith, however, who put the property on the minds of culinary travellers. Wilmer recruited him from New York, won over immediately by Smith's passion and ability to think big. Wilmer calls Smith "the best self-marketer I have ever met" and that trait led to cookbooks and the TV series, one of which was called "The Inn Chef." Its episodes are still repeated and that has helped to perpetuate the belief that Smith remains at the reins of the kitchen.
He's long gone, but the Inn at Bay Fortune has not faltered. Serio's food is creative and exquisite, living up to the high expectations any visitor would have when reserving a table at this restaurant. He takes advantage of a sprawling garden on the property that includes a variety of peppers, root vegetables, and even pumpkins.
"More and more of us are concerned about where our food comes from. Here, everyone can see it's right from our property. I'm out here every day, seeing what's ready to use in the kitchen," says Serio, who is from Whitby, Ontario, and has been the executive chef at the inn for more than two years.
On my visit, Serio's was the only kitchen on the island serving bluefin tuna, the pricey delicacy that is a big attraction for sportfishers. Serio served it both as a filet and inventively sliced it thin and plated it as a delicious "bluefin tuna carpaccio," a tasty indulgence that shows Serio is emerging as a bright chef in his own right. The Inn at Bay Fortune ranked 49th on the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list in 2012 and placed 62nd among the Top 100 in 2013.
While his most famous predecessor is still a presence, Serio sees Smith's notoriety as a challenge to live up to. He doesn't balk at the task and welcomes any advice Smith might offer. For his part, Smith is a strong supporter of the sustainable efforts made by restaurateurs and chefs like Wilmer and Serio. During an interview with me last year, Smith raved about PEI's abundance of produce and devotion to local ingredients. Smith still lives on PEI and will drop in on the property he made famous.
When he speaks of Smith, Wilmer does so in the context of the inn's evolution. Smith blossomed the property before departing for a restaurant venture in Nova Scotia that didn't last long. The inn, meanwhile, has carried on and is wrapping up its 25th season. Wilmer, who is from Connecticut, purchased the building in part because it was close to where he and his family would spend summers while visiting PEI during his childhood. His goal was to bring luxury fine dining and a farm-to-table approach to the island. A pioneer in the sustainable food movement in North America, the Inn at Bay Fortune has retained its legacy as a place for great chefs largely because that's how Wilmer desires it to be. As he says, "I want someone to use this as a stepping stone in their career."
ANOTHER CULINARY GEM IN PEI
The Pearl Cafe is beloved on PEI -- even though owner Maxine Delaney has featured a new chef almost every year since it opened in 2007. Delaney has turned this charming, cozy, converted house into a local's favourite because of its welcoming atmosphere and menu that features comfort foods and fruits, vegetables, and herbs picked from the garden and fields behind the property.
"I'm from a farm. This is what I know to eat," Delaney says of her dedication to using ingredients from the island. She's also hosted art shows in the space, including a racy series of nudes that adorned the walls of the North Rustico restaurant last year.
It's rumoured that the island's most famous couple -- actress Elisha Cuthbert and her hockey-playing husband, Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs -- are such fans of the Pearl that they recommend it to anyone visiting the island.