By Barbara Ramsay Orr
Chef Michael Smith is on fire — and that’s a good thing, both for the Canadian culinary scene and for anyone hoping to pay a visit to our smallest province, Prince Edward Island.
The Inn at Bay Fortune, a scrubbed and wind-washed gem overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, is a 15-room boutique hotel, the only five-star property on the island. It’s the place from which Michael Smith launched his career as a celebrity chef, with the warmly received televised cooking series The Inn Chef in the 1990s. He went on to capture the hearts of cooks and foodies with his down-to-earth approach to good food, and his ahead-of-the-curve emphasis on local producers and ‘farm to fork’ eating.
After many television projects and 10 cookbooks, the talented chef has closed the circle, returning to his origins to make his culinary dream a reality.
With wife and partner Chastity, he is now the innkeeper at Inn at Bay Fortune, as well as the executive chef and primary cheerleader.
I came to the Inn because I’m a foodie and a big fan of the chef, but I would have come just for the accommodation experience. The Inn is small, an intimate establishment where it’s easy to feel as if you’re a guest at the (elegant) home of close friends. Rooms vary in size — mine, in the tower, was smallish — but each one is detailed to perfection. The feel is beachy, with soft greys, blues and lots of white; many of the textures, finishes and elements are natural and local. All of the rooms are washed with light from plentiful windows, and paintings by PEI artists hang on the walls.
The common rooms are spacious and bright, with polished wood floors, a large fireplace and a gentle coastal palette. The dining areas are lined with windows giving on to views of the sloping lawn and the bay.
Surrounding the Inn itself are acres of farmland and gardens, the primary source of most of the ingredients for the dishes served in the dining room.
Touring the farm with Michael Smith was like a quick course in responsible living — and a foodie’s dream come true. The man is an inspiration for doing things well, being gentle with the earth, and celebrating the bounty we have around us.
“We are so blessed to be cooks here. We are surrounded by farmers and fishermen and culinary artisans of every type and stripe. That’s what makes Prince Edward Island one of the most unique culinary destinations in the world,” he tells me.
“This island is remarkably rich, with abundant produce and all that the seas provides. Not only that, there are dozens of local producers who harvest the best oysters or make things like black garlic or preserves or artisanal vinegars. I can forage for wild greens and mushrooms; I know where the best ones can be found, but I’m not telling! The local bounty is virtually endless.”
It was enlightening and inspiring to hear him talk about how the Inn’s kitchen uses everything it can from the garden, about what a blessing it is to make a salad from ingredients that were picked just minutes before.
In a pen near the back of the farm three pigs happily snorted and snoozed in the shade. “Today, it seems as if we have lost the connection with our food and where it actually comes from,” explains Smith. “These pigs are part of our commitment to rebuilding that connection. The cooks have given them names, the three of them eat like kings and they will enjoy a lovely summer, with one bad day at the end.”
And then it was time for the main event, the celebration of food that brings guests from across Canada and abroad to this little inn: The Feast at Fireworks. Virtually everything we eat will have been cooked over flames — either in the outdoor fire pits, the smokers, or the massive wood-fired oven in the centre of the dining room. The Fire Brigade, as Smith calls his team of well-choreographed servers, sous-chefs and chefs, keep the fires stoked and the guests superbly fed.
But before we take our places in the dining room, there’s a leisurely pre-dinner tasting and sipping in the garden. It begins on the lawn outside, where guests mingle, sip handcrafted cocktails made from artisanal spirits and savour starters like pork roasted over the outdoor fire pit and served on grilled homemade pitas topped with an edible flower.
There are fresh oysters on ice at the bar, just harvested from Colville Bay and perfectly paired with a glass of chilled Benjamin Bridge bubbly. I’m given a lesson in shucking, and then get to taste the result: a perfect plump oyster topped with frozen Bloody Mary slurry—easily the best I have ever eaten, briny and chilly and just slightly salty.
There is a pre-dinner toast, led by Chef Smith standing on the grass below the flags of Canada and Prince Edward Island, welcoming the guests and thanking the many people who helped make the feast.
And then we dine together. Part of what Chef Smith believes in, and that he fears we have lost, is the joy of sharing food communally. So the Feast is served at long butcher-block tables where guests become a family for the evening, and soon it seems as if we have known our dinner companions for years.
The first course is a thick and seafood-heavy chowder, served like a work of art, complete with an anchor-shaped biscuit.
There is, of course, fresh local lobster, as well as choice island specialties in the multi-course meal. The salad is a masterpiece, composed of lettuces, herbs, leaves and seeds from the garden and accompanied by a trio of purees. There’s even ‘edible dirt,’ a melange of seeds and nuts.
Afterwards we hunker around the outdoor fire with our new best friends, roast homemade marshmallows and enjoy fireworks that light up the bay.
In the morning, breakfast carries on the flame-fired theme, with home fries, eggs and mushrooms served sizzling in a cast iron pan. Locally made jams and jellies, freshly baked bread and house-cured bacon are all delicious ways to greet the morning.
There are other things to do in the area: great golfing on three different courses, fishing, hikes and tours of Charlottetown. The best lobster roll known to man can be found at Dave’s Lobster down by the Charlottetown waterfront. Visitors can tour the new Stompin’ Tom Connor’s Museum, see a production of Ann of Green Gables or visit the birthplace of confederation at historic Province House. There’s a lovely drive from Charlottetown to Greenwich in Prince Edward Island National Park, where visitors can see the famous parabolic dunes and hike along the floating boardwalk to Greenwich Beach, with its red sand, green marram grass and blue water. There are colourful fishing villages, lobster dinners in quaint town halls and artisanal shops and galleries sprinkled all over the island.
But let’s not kid ourselves — for the dedicated culinary tourist, it’s the Feast at Fireworks that draws us! A comfortable stay at the Inn at Bay Fortune is the bonus.
At departure from the Inn, each guest is given a freshly baked loaf of bread to take home, cooked in the wood-fired ovens, still a bit warm and smelling faintly of wood smoke.
It’s the perfect souvenir of a memorable dining adventure.
If You Go
The Inn at Bay Fortune is about an hour’s drive from Charlottetown. The Inn fills up quickly and the Feast at Fireworks, which can be booked by non-guests, should be booked well ahead of time. The Inn at Bay Fortune opens for the 2018 season on May 18th.