A funny thing happened on the way to James Smith’s dream of a career in sound engineering. A bowl of soup upended his plans.
The year was 1989. Smith had left his native Australia to spend time exploring Canada. In Toronto, he met a fellow traveler at a youth hostel who took him to the city’s Chinatown and introduced Smith to an exotic new dish, Vietnamese fish stew.
“I was 19 or 20, fresh off the farm in southeastern Australia. I was used to very basic foods. I had a very meat-and-potatoes kind of upbringing,” recalls Smith. “That fish stew was the most delicious-tasting thing I’d ever had. From that point on, I fell in love with food. I started cooking and never looked back.”
Instead of studying music, Smith studied culinary arts. He enrolled at George Brown College in Toronto while working full time at one of the city’s landmark restaurants, Scaramouche. Over the next three decades, Smith would work at some of the most iconic restaurants, teach culinary arts at three different institutions and develop recipes for the Food Network as well as several food magazines. In wearing many hats—or, perhaps, toques would be more appropriate—his passion for education would be a consistent theme.
“I wanted to learn and share as much about food and about all the areas that food influences, which is why I went through all these different phases,” he says.
That passion, particularly for clean eating and sustainably grown foods, is front and center in Smith’s newest role as director of Agri-food at Western Fair District in London, Ontario.
Western Fair District is a historic, 85-acre entertainment complex with deep roots in the region. It evolved over 150 years from solely a fall fair to a thriving year-round event center. Although it now offers shopping, harness racing, concerts and restaurants, its core mission is to support agricultural development.
“One of the things I’ve focused on since I started working there is reshaping and re-strategizing,” says Smith. “I’m trying to connect farmers directly to the community with good, local food and the stories that go with that food.”
Among Smith’s many responsibilities at Western Fair District is leading an initiative called The Grove, a hub for small-to-medium-size food businesses. The Grove gives businesses the resources, space and connections necessary to help them scale up and expand into new markets. “The measure of our success is ultimately going to be in five, six, seven years,” says Smith, the time it is projected to take from the incubator stage to accelerator stage.
For Smith, the journey is everything, whether it’s helping a food start-up realize its potential, guiding his students to develop exceptional culinary skills or working with his own team to adapt recipes with locally grown, sustainable ingredients that change the way people think about food. “That’s what brings me joy,” he says.
Why Mercer Culinary
“I’m a huge proponent of people having the right tools for the right job. Good quality equipment is paramount. They’re key to the enjoyment of cooking. It is an investment, but my Mercer kit is 10 or 12 years old. It is quality that I live by.”