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Chef Michael Smith currently owns both his eponymous fine-dining concept and its more casual sister, Extra Virgin.
Michael Smith’s big moment at the former Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago arrived on New Year’s Eve 1987. On the menu that night was lobster in a saffron sauce served over black squid ink fettuccine.
Smith was not on the line, but was helping out with pastry. He was in the pantry when he heard the late Trotter cry out, asking if anyone knew how to make black squid ink pasta. Another cook’s pasta kept falling apart in the water. Smith raised his hand and came forward. He used to make black squid ink pasta every day while working in France. His pasta held.
“It worked perfectly,” recalled Smith, now owner of his own eponymous restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., and its sister concept, Extra Virgin, located next door. “That was basically my money shot. I was there for the next two years.”
Smith is this year’s recipient of the MenuMasters Innovator Award. His experience at the famed Charlie Trotter’s restaurant and at other fine-dining restaurants in the United States and abroad helped him refine his cooking into a sophisticated but approachable style.
Smith left Charlie Trotter’s to become corporate executive for The American Restaurant, a 25-year-old Kansas City institution in need of refreshing. It was there Smith began to receive national attention for his cooking.
In 1999 he became the first Kansas City chef to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest, and he continued to garner awards. He won Readers’ Choice for Best Chef in Kansas City from Pitch magazine in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, KC Magazine named him Best Chef. His first restaurant, Forty Sardines in Leawood, Kan., was nominated for a James Beard Best New Restaurant award and won the award for Best Restaurant Design in 2002.
Smith established a series of annual fundraising dinners for the James Beard Foundation, as well as local seminars and special events that feature celebrity chefs from around the country.
For his Michael Smith restaurant, he knew he wanted to create a white-tablecloth restaurant with a high-end presentation, but he also wanted a more casual place. Extra Virgin, a tapas restaurant, was born.
Smith also collaborates with the founders of Spin! Pizza, a nine-unit fast-casual concept based in Leawood.
Smith fell in love with Europe on a backpacking trip he took after graduating college. When he returned he began working at French restaurant Chateau Pyrenees in Denver. There he studied under Jean-Pierre Lelievre and later Georges Mavrothalassitis. He followed Lelievre to France to work in a restaurant in Nice.
In France, Smith learned the importance of organization and clean cooking. Sloppiness was not tolerated. Later, at Charlie Trotter’s, Smith was exposed to a wide variety of foods and ingredients.
“Young chefs need exposure to food,” Smith said. “Whether blood oranges or squid ink or porcini mushrooms — you need to be able to say, ‘I’ve seen and worked with those before.’ Otherwise, you’re not the good cook or kitchen leader you think you are. Working with 10,000 more ingredients than other cooks makes me a better chef.”