Chef Chris Smythe was born, raised and started his career right here in Niagara; and he loves it. With such abundance at our fingertips in the form of local food and wine, what’s not for a chef to love? Chris actually started his apprenticeship at the Prince of Wales hotel over 20 years ago, and he has now come full circle: since 2011, he has been the Executive Chef there.
His entire career has in fact been spent in Niagara. As Chris explains, “I didn’t really feel that need like a lot of chefs do, to get up and go over to Europe, or go down to the States. I wanted to stay here, I just really enjoyed the area.” And so began a career that would take him to several different restaurants throughout Niagara, though most have been concentrated in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He’s put his stamp on the Pillar and Post, the Riverbend Inn & Vineyard, Queen’s Landing, and now the Prince of Wales. He is an alumnus of the culinary program at Niagara College, and he taught at the Niagara Culinary Institute for about seven years. He remains involved in the school as part of their advisory committee. He also spent two years running his own restaurant, something he cites as one of the biggest challenges of his career: “You do a bit of everything and it’s a real eye opener to how much work is really involved in this industry.”
He has been a pioneer in the Farm to Table movement, and although it’s only recently become a trendy and marketable thing, Chris notes that he’s been doing it for years at the various restaurants he has worked at. And he’s fully committed to continuing that farmer-chef relationship at the Prince of Wales. He says, “we have a network of farms that we use throughout the year, and they really tie us in to the farm to table. They’re great. I visit the farmers once every couple of weeks and see what they have that’s available. Farming is not easy, it’s a hard way of life, and we want to support them as much as possible. They have the best product out there, and we would rather have it from just down the street, versus it sitting on the back of a truck, coming from the other side of the country”. It terms of how he deals with this during the colder winter months, he explains, “it gets a bit challenging to work farm to table 100% throughout the year, because obviously there is not a lot available during the winter season. So we do a lot of things to prepare ourselves for that. We take in a lot of products in the fall, and we prepare it, whether it is preserving it or storing it in a way that we can use it throughout the winter months.”
Chris’s job as Executive Chef is an important one. He is in charge of the culinary direction of all areas of the Prince of Wales hotel, which includes the main restaurant, Escabèche, the lounge and the drawing room, where there is a very popular afternoon tea. He oversees the restaurant at the Moffat Inn, a property that is located right next door to the Prince of Wales. He also is in charge of the catering aspect of the restaurants, and often caters at the wineries, whether it is for weddings or corporate events. A new edition, The Royal Cambridge Room, set to be open in December of 2013, is an extension of the Prince of Wales and is a room that will hold up to 200 people; Chris will be in charge of that as well. In short, he’s a pretty busy guy.
What made you decide you wanted to be a Chef?
CS: “I’ve just always sought comfort in food and trying new things. I think I was in awe the first time I worked for a chef because I’d never seen such a respectful discipline as a professional kitchen. That really struck a chord with me. When you first enter a kitchen, you start from the ground floor and then you work your way up. That really sat well with me. I liked the discipline and I liked the structure. Then of course, just the creative side of it. There is so much to work with, and the opportunity is always there for creativity. “
Do you have a cooking philosophy?
CS: “My cooking philosophy is just using simple techniques, but good ingredients. I don’t like to overcomplicate things. I try and source out the best ingredients whether it’s local produce from a farm that is just down the street, or a farm that has a small allotment of proteins. That’s something that I look for. I’m not a chef that puts 20 different elements on a plate. I put maybe three to four, and they are made up of really good ingredients that just tie in really well. Simple is best I think.”
Is there someone in your career that stands our as a mentor?
CS: “Yes, and it’s a local chef. The first chef that I worked for, when I really made the decision to make this my career, was Mark Walpole. He actually was at one time the Executive Chef here (at the Prince of Wales).”
How do you stay educated on new food trends?
CS: “I travel. I travel to the hottest and hippest cities that I can find that have the most current trends. It’s constant education. Basically, food is like fashion, if you are outdated, then you don’t exist. I’ll go to New York, Chicago, Miami…while I am there, I just absorb everything. I take in the service style, the design, the setup, plate presentation, plateware…it’s just endless. You have to stay current, you really do.”
Is there a moment in your career you are most proud of?
CS: “Yes, definitely. I would say probably walking into this role at the Prince of Wales. I started my apprenticeship here back in 1989, and I always thought at one point I would like to return to this hotel, because I had a lot of respect and admiration for what it stood for. I think this is probably my shining moment, being at the Prince of Wales.”
Do you have a favourite ingredient to use?
CS: “100%, hands down, it would be pork. I’m a really big pork fan, because it’s really versatile and there is so much flavour to it. It’s not the highest demand product out there; it’s probably the least in the way of protein. But I love pork, there are so many things you can do with the whole nose to tail situation. It’s a big foodie thing; everyone that is really into food, likes pork.”
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
CS: “That would be my staff. We’ve created a great culinary brigade at the Prince of Wales. It’s taken a lot of work to train, to get people up to a level where I feel confident that I don’t need to be here 24 hours a day. It’s very important to have balance in this career, you need to be able to leave, and leave everything there, and then come back into it with a fresh perspective and start all over again the next day. So I think my staff is something that I am really proud of as well as the product we put out. We really produce a high caliber of dining here.”
Do you have a favourite kitchen gadget?
CS: “I think one of my favourite gadgets would be my spice mill. We get all our spices in whole, then we roast them, and then we grind them in a little coffee grinder. We even use it for pepper, we get in the black peppercorns, we roast them, we grind them, it’s a fresher product. It’s just some of the little things we do to keep our standards high.”
Do you have a cooking disaster story you can share?
CS: “Where do I start…well, there is an event we do once a year that has upwards of 500 guests. One year we spent three days preparing little mini meat pies; we made the pastries, filled them, packed them, and did up about 500 portions. We were transporting them in a tower of a food warmer unit, and put them on a truck, which a new person was driving that day. We typically use pry bars to pry our warming or cooler units in so they don’t roll around in the back of a cube van. So the truck arrived on site, and I drive up and see a group of people standing at the back of our cube van, just in awe, and what had happened was, the units had toppled over, and about 50% of the tarts were unusable. I walked up and into the truck and just said, ‘everything’s ok’, so everyone kind of backed away. Luckily we were in close proximity to the hotel, so we came up with a quick backup plan where we offered a second option that was a little quicker for us to prepare and that we had an inventory of. I think everyone thought I was going to have a coronary on site, but it was fine, it all worked out, and these things happen sometimes.”
What kind of meals do you make at home?
CS: “We have four children, and as busy as life is, we try and really focus on having a Sunday supper together. That is the day that I’ll primarily cook. I really like to do a roast dinner, whether it’s chicken or prime rib. We do all the trimmings, and we just make it a very special time. There is no yelling allowed, there is no arguing, everyone has to get along. We want to build these memories for our children, so we really committed to consistently doing this Sunday after Sunday, so that’s a really special time for me. It’s just really done with love. It’s nice.”
What would be on the menu at your last supper?
CS: “I think it would probably be something more in the way of comfort food. I’m a real carnivore. It would probably be like a Chicago style pizza. Something deep dish, lost of cheese, lots of meat. That’s something that would make me very happy.”
The Prince of Wales Hotel is located at 6 Picton Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Escabèche, a 4 diamond restaurant, serves up not only delicious, French inspired cuisine, but has a beautiful dining area. The menus change seasonally.
The Churchill Lounge allows for a more informal atmosphere to enjoy your food, and the Victorian Drawing Room lets you go back in time, while you enjoy their daily, afternoon tea.
The Coach and Horses Pub at the Moffat provides bistro-style dining in a lovely British pub inspired atmosphere.
More information on all restaurants available at www.vintage-hotels.com