TORONTO — Preparing family meals can be a source of angst for a lot of people, but Michael Smith reminds parents that the task doesn’t have to be onerous or stressful.
“Give yourself a break, relax, understand that human beings have done this forever and you can do it too and you will get over the hurdle,” the P.E.I.-based chef says. “The real key is making that choice: ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to figure it out just like all those other incredibly complex things in life that we figure out. We can do this one too.’
“And don’t believe the hype. It can be simple and straightforward. It doesn’t always have to be complicated and perfect and full of esoteric ingredients and weird tools. Just simple, straightforward saves the day.”
After all, it’s only food, he adds during a recent visit to Toronto to promote his eighth cookbook.
In “Family Meals” (Penguin Canada), Smith includes 100 recipes from his kitchen written in his laid-back conversational style featuring homemade food with big flavours, such as Nacho Burgers, Old World Chicken Cacciatore, Special Shrimp Fried Rice and Tortilla Lasagna. He also offers tips for quick weeknight dinners, easy snacks and lunchbox ideas to keep the family kitchen running smoothly.
Though Smith has travelled the world preparing food for Olympic athletes and celebrities, he acknowledges his most challenging role is cooking for his children — Gabe, 12, Ariella, 6, and Camille, 2 — and he hopes the recipes that work for his kids will appeal to readers’ families.
“As a parent, I don’t feel there’s any such thing as perfection in your kitchen. Sometimes the kids will eat it; sometimes they won’t. Even mine. Sometimes the same thing that they love all the time they’re not going near it. You’ve just got to suck it up and soldier on. …
“The kids keep me on the straight and narrow. They remind me. I get chopped at home more than I ever chop on TV,” he says in reference to his appearances as a judge on the reality Food Network Canada show “Chopped Canada.” Season 2 has been taped and is set to air in the new year.
At home, Smith says he gets chopped on vegetables. Gabe gives a thumbs-down to fish, though he’ll eat scallops and mussels. Ariella won’t touch scallops.
“So there’s days when you feel like you’re running an a la carte restaurant. Everybody’s doing something a little different. But at heart I think we fundamentally need to make that choice to cook, to stop buying processed food.”
He reminds parents that cooking real food for their kids is important. “This isn’t optional stuff. You gotta eat. You’re not letting a factory cook for you. That’s really what it comes down to. If we are what we eat, I’d rather be homemade than factory-made.”
In “Family Meals,” Smith promotes planning ahead.
“It’s certainly one of the truisms of being a chef is the idea that we spend time to save time. It’s a strategy that so many families have shared with me over the years where they rally on the weekend, charge up for the week ahead, get some cooking done on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, whatever works for your life. But it is a strong strategy … (and) a good way to alleviate pressure day to day.”
In fact, Smith says his next book, which he’s working on now, is devoted to make-ahead meals.
Using time-saving tools is another strategy. Pressure cookers and slow cookers are “underutilized tools when we’re schedule challenged. Too easy to fill up a slow cooker and walk away. Do it before you go to work in the morning. Fill it up the night before after dinner, put it in the fridge. In the morning just pop it in to the cooker and walk away.”
“Or pressure cookers — we have some odd irrational fear of pressure cookers in North America. The rest of the world uses them. We don’t. The rest of the world saves time, they save energy, they’re tastier, they’re more nutritious. The same food prepared in pressure cookers is flat out better for you than stewed and simmered on a stovetop for a while.”
Smith, who has hosted several Food Network Canada shows, including “Chef Michael’s Kitchen,” “Chef at Home,” and “Chef Abroad,” relaxes with about 45 minutes of yoga — “anywhere from 50 to 60 poses” — in the late afternoon at home. “Then I go and cook, then it’s bathtime, then it’s story time, then it’s bedtime.”
Smith’s three children are in “Family Meals.” Gabe took some pointers from photographer Ryan Szulc and has been given credit for a props photo. “Ariella loves that she’s on the cover. She tells everybody,” Smith says with a chuckle.
“This is the first time the world has seen these two. They know Gabe, of course. He was on ‘Chef at Home.’ But this is all new for Ariella and Camille. And I think it’s appropriate exposure. They’re never going to be on TV. … and they won’t be in the next books — but this one, sure, and they’re proud of it.
“It feels good as a dad that my kids are proud of me and they like that they’re in this book and I think sometimes we forget that guys like me are people too and I have the same motivations everyone else does. When your kids are proud of you, that’s pretty cool.”