House + Home Q+A

Award-winning restaurateur Michael Smith discusses his artful, busy life

Updated: 2014-01-19T01:35:37Z


Special to The Star

What first catches the eye when you walk into Michael Smith’s home isn’t the kitchen. Sure, the 53-year-old chef extraordinaire has a fine-looking kitchen. But it’s the colorful artwork blazing along the walls — some framed, others works in progress propped up in a library — that might lead a visitor to believe this is the home of an artist.

Smith, however, is known for his artistry with food. His fine dining establishment, Michael Smith, opened in July 2007; a more casual eatery, Extra Virgin, followed about six months later. He has a string of accolades and awards for his restaurants, including the coveted James Beard Award for “Best Chef in the Midwest.”

On a recent sunny afternoon, Smith took an hour out of his day to discuss his artful, busy life. He’s home with his wife, Nancy Smith (general manager at his restaurants) and one of his daughters, Sophie, 14. Misha, 17, is off with friends. He shares custody of the girls with his ex-wife, James Beard award-winning chef Debbie Gold. His weekends with his daughters are precious time for him, he says.

These colorful canvases beg the question: Are you an aspiring artist?

I love to paint and I love color. I harbor this very inner private wish that I could, as I’m transitioning into an old person who can’t handle being a chef, be this prolific artist with hundreds and hundreds of works of art. And people would say, “Wow, that’s incredible.” I realize that’s probably not going to happen, but hey…

I know you spend a lot of time in your restaurants’ kitchens, so what do you want in your home kitchen?

My kitchen isn’t perfect, but I like that it has a lot of counter space, and I really love the granite counters. I like the way the kitchen is laid out. It could be better, but I’m not going to put $100,000 into a kitchen because, frankly, I cook only on the weekends.

What does every chef need in a kitchen?

If I had to provide meals to a family every night of the week — those Vitamix blenders that are $500 can do amazing things. You can take all your leftovers — potatoes, carrots, whatever — add onion and cream, puree them and create a great soup. I use my cast-iron skillet beyond belief. I need my tongs — they’re like my third hand.

You have cookbooks lining the shelves of the kitchen and many other rooms. Do you follow recipes word-for-word?

The pictures are usually my inspiration. But there are books, like this one (he holds up “Pok Pok” by Andy Ricker) that I do follow. Those chefs lived in huts and slept on the floor for six months, really living the life, to get those recipes. That’s great information for me, and I need to follow the recipes, ’cause I’m not going to sleep on rocks.

What do you most like to cook?

The older I get, the simpler I like things. I stayed in France a long time, and I valued that, but part of me wishes I’d gone to Italy. I love handmade pasta now. I want food to be rustic and have great flavor. I’m less concerned with the precision of peeling everything and making sure everything is perfect, though we do that in the fine restaurant. But these days, I just want to combine things and hopefully, create this great jamorama. I’m a tried and true guy.

When you cook at home, what’s the focus?

Sunday night would be when I cook and we often pick a theme: Mexican, Moroccan, whatever. We don’t cook gourmet at home. And we entertain a lot, so if I’m tired, I’ll tell people what the theme is, make the main dish and let everyone else pitch in.

You have one grown daughter from your first marriage, and two daughters who live here part of the time. Do they like to cook?

They all do, but Sophie especially lately. Sophie’s up early with me. We’ll sit here and make pasta.

Do you enjoy living with someone in the same business?

I’ve always been surrounded by my family in this business. I was raised by my mom, who was a restaurant manager, and I’ve worked with my two exes and Nancy. I’ve always been surrounded by women. I don’t have anything in common with the guys who want to go out and drink beer and watch the game with the guys. I want to watch the game, sure, but there will never be eight guys in this house drinking beer around the TV.

Would it be fair to say you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps?

I grew up in a trailer park, with no father. I put myself through college. I went to France and learned from my chef, and later many others. So yeah, I worked hard to get here.

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