Inn The Know
The inside story of Canada’s greatest culinary experience.
By Jennifer Wood
Photographs by Tyler Warren Ellis
World-renowned Chef Michael Smith and his wife Chastity Smith (known as Chazz to those closest to her), an accomplished interior decorator and musician, have joined their talents in culinary arts, design and customer service to rethink and transform Prince Edward Island’s Inn at Bay Fortune. In their three years as proprietors they have grown the business by six hundred percent and have established the inn as a five-star destination — the only one of its kind on the island.
Chastity Smith in the FireWorks restaurant.
While Michael is a native of New York, he is quick to point out that he very much identifies as being Canadian. He first came to Canada — to Prince Edward Island, more specifically — when he left his job at Bouley, then a top-rated restaurant in America, to lead the inn’s culinary team. “When I came here I felt like I had come home,” he says. For seven years in the nineties, he “grew up” as a chef and played a lead role in transforming the inn into one of the province’s most sought-after culinary destinations. Later he began to diversify his career, opening his own restaurant, Maple, in Halifax and establishing himself as a top-selling cookbook author — ten to date — and the host of several cooking shows, including Chef Michael’s Kitchen, Chef at Home and Chef Abroad, which appear on Canada’s Food Network and in more than 100 countries around the world.
Their desire for patrons to enjoy an authentic, meaningful experience sits at the core of Chastity and Michael’s business plan. While it took time to fully realize their offering from concept to execution, they have stumbled upon a unique customer experience that can be summed up in three words: Farm. Fire. Feast. The inn offers a first-hand look at the work and passion behind their fresh organic produce, which is hand-picked on their eight-acre farm. The harvest is then coupled with meat from local butchers or fish caught from the island’s surrounding seas and cooked by the inn’s “Fire Brigade” over live fire. Finally, a feast for the ages is served family-style, with patrons sitting cozily alongside one another. For overnight guests the inn offers 15 beautiful and serene guest rooms — and a fantastic breakfast to complete the stay.
Kyle Stewart preparing tacos at the taco bar during Oyster Hour
Chastity and Michael place high value on customer care and professionalism and choose their people as meticulously as they have thought through the inn’s aesthetic and customer experience. Their guest-services experts and housekeeping and wait staff are from the area and return each year to offer warm and friendly service. The inn has also garnered a reputation for attracting chefs from across the country, those with a deep desire to work for Michael while playing an integral part of a cohesive team.
“My time here has been a gift,” says Brian Thibodeau, Fish Head at The Inn at Bay Fortune. Brian left his position as a chef at a restaurant in Whistler, BC to join Michael’s team. “The harvesting, weeding, planting and general care of the farm have given me an appreciation for where our food comes from. As a chef, I will take this knowledge with me wherever I go,” he says. “Part of my day involves a trip to the wharf, where I select from the lobsters and the fish — like halibut and tuna — caught that morning. There aren’t many chef opportunities in this country where you have a chance to get that close to the produce you cook or the fish you fillet and prepare.”
The Maritime Edit recently had the opportunity to sit down with Michael and Chastity — just weeks before their seasonal closure — to discuss the inn’s success, their greatest accomplishments and what lies ahead.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Your inn is so beautiful and welcoming. Can you tell us about the work you have done here since you became owners?
MICHAEL SMITH: Thank you. We knew it needed a reno from the ground up. We spent our first winter prior to its opening rethinking the design, the flow, the sightlines — everything. Chastity has achieved something that is not easy to do, which is offering luxury without pretense. We are a country inn on Prince Edward Island. We are not wired to be pretentious or snooty.
CHASTITY SMITH: There was a time when you couldn’t put luxury and Maritimes together. That is all changing though. In part I think it’s because the Maritimes are becoming more worldly and the very idea of luxury is shifting. Luxury for most people is becoming more and more about being able to have experiences, to be connected to others. It’s about being able to slow down.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How did timing play a role — in terms of where you both were in your careers and with your brand — in your purchase of the inn?
MICHAEL SMITH: We knew it was perfect timing. We had a five-year strategic plan in place and we were ready. If you are referring to my career and the whole “Chef Michael Smith” thing, that is just a small part of the inn. The success we are experiencing here is the result of many factors, and in no way, shape or form is it just about me. It’s about us — one hundred percent.
CHASTITY SMITH: I was looking for something to put my energies into. We had gotten through the toddler stage with our children and we wanted a joint project. For me as a decorator, this was a dream come true. It was like having a massive dollhouse that I could redesign. The inn and its 15 rooms all needed a fresh, new and welcoming look and the flow of it had to be reconfigured. It has been a huge project and I have loved every second of it.
THE MARITIME EDIT: The farm and fire aspects of your business are self-explanatory. Can you tell us about the Feast component of the guest experience?
MICHAEL SMITH: The Feast aspect took longer to conceive. To be honest we didn’t fully understand the intricacies of it when we opened. We knew that we wanted to serve family-style, with people sitting together so they could share the evening communally. This idea led to starting the evening at the same time with everyone sitting together. We thought people would eat at 7 p.m. but we decided to say 6 to ensure that everyone could be here for 7. Then we thought, well if guests are going to come at 6, then we will shuck oysters and offer other appetizers around the property. We decided to call this part Oyster Hour.
CHASTITY SMITH: The Feast component was really scary for us. Although we believed in it we were worried about how the guests would receive it. It’s so unconventional. When we reflect on the introduction of the Feast experience now, we think we must have been crazy!
MICHAEL SMITH: We are crazy! We risked it all on the Feast!
THE MARITIME EDIT: Is it fair to say that the Feast was your biggest fear but that it has translated into your biggest accomplishment, joy and surprise?
MICHAEL SMITH: The Feast is the best part. Straight up. The Best Part.
CHASTITY SMITH: The biggest gift we have experienced since buying the inn is seeing our guests unwind. Some of them arrive from large cities and have incredibly taxing jobs. We love to watch them slow down. You can see it in their faces and in the way they move. Some of them feel really apprehensive about the shared-dining part, but before you know it they are making friends and having real, meaningful conversations — conversations they wouldn’t have had if not for the configuration of the seating. It’s a beautiful thing, really.
MICHAEL SMITH: We are not trying to claim authorship of the Feast, but we have stumbled onto a largely unknown and unmet need in our society, which is that we — particularly the younger generations — do not come together around the table anymore. A huge chunk of our normal human experience is missing. We are too busy being busy! But eating together is part of our genetic makeup: we came together around food. Seeing the Feast in action and seeing strangers coming together in what often turns out to be a good old-fashioned Maritime kitchen party is… Well, I can’t describe it. I am so reinvigorated, so recharged.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Where is your talent from?
MICHAEL SMITH: Our chefs come from all over the country. The level of interest in what we have created here is off the hook! The pedigree of what we are seeing now is astonishing. Our chefs are incredibly talented and passionate about what they do. They work really well together and they value each other’s opinions. It’s great for us because we see relationships being established and formed during their time here. Our wait staff, guest-services people and housekeepers come from the area and often return to us at the start of each season. Our housekeepers have an excellent eye for detail, our guest-services experts are fantastic and our wait staff are the best on the island. Our sommelier came to us from one of the best restaurants in the country. She’s incredible.
THE MARITIME EDIT: The guest experience here is charming, welcoming, upbeat and flawless. What do you attribute this to?
MICHAEL SMITH: We have managed to surround ourselves with good people who share our values and our vision for hospitality. It just works.
CHASTITY SMITH: We have heads of every department, which makes it easy for us to communicate with everyone. We understand that our culture is a reflection of what begins with us and trickles down.
MICHAEL SMITH: If you don’t understand what excellent service is at its heart, you are dead in the water. Knowing the question and its answer before a guest has a chance to ask is what we strive for. We set a very high bar with our staff. And human beings want to play on a winning team and be led by people they respect.
Seafood Chowder in FireWorks
THE MARITIME EDIT: You have created a workday that seems predictable and affords you the opportunity to leave before the end of the Feast. Being able to walk away from a business — particularly in food and beverage — is difficult. The fact that you can translates into a big win and is a reflection of your hard work up front. Is it tricky to pull away when you have a full restaurant?
MICHAEL SMITH: It can be. It is. As a chef, I’m wired to stay and want to be here, but one of the things I have had to learn is my role here. I can’t be the chef who is slogging it out 16 hours a day. I’m a father, a husband and a neighbour — and I need to be those things too. I need to stay high-level and focus on these aspects of our business. We have several amazing chefs. It’s their job to think about the food, the inventory and ordering, and keeping the kitchen clean and running. They do this so that I can get home and read a story to my kids.
CHASTITY SMITH: After three years here we are comfortable in the fact that the staff are really well trained and know the business. We can give them some space, which affords us some space from the inn. We hear about couples who have opened up a bed and breakfast only to burn out two years later, and we know it’s because they did everything! You have to know what, when and how to give up parts of the operation, and it has to be a part of your business plan.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How do you enjoy having a seasonal operation? What do you like to do in the off-season?
MICHAEL SMITH: Closing our operations in the winter means we get to come back stronger. We have a chance to learn from all the big and tiny lessons from the previous season. Our business has grown exponentially fast since we opened — we are busting at the seams. We spend a lot of time throughout the winter planning our expansion and preparing for the season ahead. I also really enjoy cooking for my family, hiking and managing the other aspects of my culinary business.
CHASTITY SMITH: I enjoy the time with our children and working on my other passion, which is singing and music. I really appreciate having all of us home, with a fire going and maybe a glass of wine on the go. I love to have Michael cook for us too!
THE MARITIME EDIT: What is your favourite thing to eat?
CHASTITY SMITH: Michael’s Caesar salad, a great steak and a glass of red wine.
MICHAEL SMITH: For me, it’s not about — and it has never been about — what’s on the table but who is at it. I like anything as long as our kids are there with us. If my answer to that question was steak, then it wouldn’t be just about eating the steak. It would be about buying it, building a fire, enjoying a beer while I wait for the fire and then cooking it and sharing it. You know, when I am on tour with a new cookbook I get asked all the time what my favourite recipe is. I always think, “How can you ask me that?” I mean, it’s like asking me which one of my kids I like the best.
A Toast by Chef Michael Smith
"Cheers to this incredible place, to Prince Edward Island! To the people on this island, the people who get up each and every day and get their hands dirty making food. Because that is who we are. We are a place of authentic food. We are a place of farmers, fishermen and culinary artisans. It is these people and the work they do who let guys like me be our best. The heart of this project is a question really. And that question is, What happens when you have a farm and a kitchen and you put them together so tightly that you can’t tell where one ends and the other one begins? That is what we do here. I want you to know that I am part of an amazing team that shares my passion for service and live-fire cooking. Thank you for joining us this evening. Cheers! Welcome to the party!"