Chef Michael Smith, owner of Extra Virgin and his eponymous restaurant Michael Smith, peels shrimp faster than anyone he knows. He peels ten pounds of shrimp in seven minutes. He has honed that speed and skill since the age of 12 when he began working in a seafood restaurant kitchen managed by his mother.
However, he didn’t spend all of his youth working in the trade. Post-high school, Smith graduated from the University of Southern Colorado with a degree in psychology. Afterward, he decided that he didn’t want to be sequestered in an office as a counselor or scientist applying learned theory. Then he found an opportunity in the early 1980s by answering a want ad for Chateau Pyrenees, a French restaurant in Denver, where Smith studied under mentor Chef Jean Pierre Lelievre.
“I liked the language of the kitchen and the hierarchy,” says Smith. “I didn’t know how to cook yet or run a restaurant, but I chose this opportunity.”
In 1985, Smith traveled to Nice and Cassis in southern France to hone his cooking skills and learn about European cooking with fresh local ingredients. Upon his return to the States, he worked as a sous chef at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. To gain further European culinary experience, he returned to Nice, France in 1989 to be the Executive Chef at L’Albion. Subsequently, he returned to work in Chicago (Carlos’ in Highland Park, Gordon) before heading to Kansas City in 1994
Chef Michael Smith savored his early culinary experiences in France. “I traveled, tasted new food, and lived in an apartment above a restaurant,” he says. “I woke up with a view of the Mediterranean sea.”
That European setting was not just scenic but informative. He learned how chefs visit open air markets to see what produce was fresh and in season. “I walked to work and passed four market stalls in the neighborhood,” he says.
The parade of seasonal vegetables was a calendar to cook by. This attentiveness to local sources was common practice long before American chefs adopted the mantra of using fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients. That focus remains a mainstay in Chef Smith’s approach to contemporary American cuisine with French and Mediterranean influences. Over time, his culinary preparation and presentation has evolved from the precision of French classicism to a more rustic style.
“I moved away from dicing vegetables so they matched perfectly. The food now is more approachable with three to four ingredients on a plate,” says Chef Smith. He teaches his sous chefs not to fuss over presentation too much and instead let the ingredients communicate with a diner’s senses. In other words, presentation doesn’t triumph taste. “I want the food to stand for itself. I want a guy to say that he loves what he’s eating.”