It all started in 1997, when Michael Smith was running the kitchen at the Inn at Bay Fortune on PEI. In the garden overlooking the sea, gathering herbs for an evening's service, the chef suddenly thought to himself, "this is so goddam perfect, we should make a television show." Within weeks, Smith, local producer Gretha Rose and co-producer Johanna Eliot of Halifax-based Ocean Entertainment (The Food Hunter, Red Hot and Ready) had sold their first series to what was then the Life Network. (Though the American TV Food Network was available in Canada at the time, Food Network Canada didn't launch until late 2000.)
The Inn Chef went to air in 1998 and was an immediate success. Four years later, Smith---then running acclaimed Halifax restaurant Maple---hung up his apron and went to work full-time on making food TV.
Chef Michael Smith is what Rose calls an invitational brand. The four television series, a handful of one-off specials, cookbooks, newspaper columns, journals and line of kitchen equipment are all about "the larger virtue of who Michael is," she says. "Family, community and friends coming together around the kitchen table." The brand has proven extremely popular: Chef At Home, Smith's third series, is seen in over 60 countries and made its star one of the biggest food television personalities on the planet.
Though the Chef Michael Smith brand is Ocean Entertainment's bread and butter, it has another Food Network star in Laura Calder. Calder is host of Halifax-produced French Food At Home, currently shooting its third season. (A request to visit the set was turned down. The cited reason was a crew under pressure from nearby construction.)
According to executive producer Eliot, whose own kitchen serves as the set, the recipe-driven French Food At Home is "inspirational, not constructional, television that looks beautiful," and is in keeping with the current trend towards simple, easy-to-replicate cuisine. To others, it's simply food porn: A food stylist's unreal vision for the armchair cook.
"So much time and effort goes into styling food and shooting it," says one industry insider, "with multiple cameras on the go, pan focus pulls, dolly shots...There's a kind of Hollywood glamourization that gets a bit gross after a while."
Smith admits to being the only one in a crew of about 40 who still feels like he's in the food industry---everyone else is in television. "There's such a high level of craftsmanship, not to mention millions of dollars, invested in production. Fortunately, I get to play in other chef's kitchens all the time."
Back when Smith was tending herbs in the inn's garden, cooking shows were vehicles for big-name chefs only, and were aimed at a niche market: women with time and money to spare. Today, the Food Network is the fastest growing network in Canada, and the demographic is everyone. As the chef puts it, "we all want to relate."
People are also more and more concerned with where their food is coming from, and are increasingly seeking out locally grown ingredients. The Food Network, says Smith, is playing a role in that. "Collectively, we're celebrating local food. I'm particularly gratified by that."
According to Smith, the shift towards local is also part of what has made Chef At Home such an enormous success. "It's about freestyle cooking---there are no recipes to follow, just guidelines, and ingredients are interchangeable." So whatever you have growing in the back garden, Chef can help you out with a few suggestions. "We get so much feedback from people thanking us for giving them freedom to experiment in the home kitchen."
Perhaps it's this inspiration that feeds the viewer's seemingly insatiable appetite for food television. Or perhaps, as Eliot puts it, it's simply that "they're beautiful shows to watch." Either way, with more than 350 episodes of its current productions in the can and more to come, Ocean Entertainment will be in the business of keeping local crews busy for some time to come.
French Food at Home on Food Network Canada, Monday-Friday, 10am and 7pm, Saturdays 12:30pm, Sundays 7pm.