“The final dinner was written on the plane on my way to the competition in Toronto,” says Smiles. “It’s really about cooking a meal that best represents you. I’m really happy about every single dish that I made.”
As fate would have it, Smiles would come within an inch of claiming the coveted title and $100,000 prize. He’d have to accept second place after serving a world-class Quebec-inspired menu, one that a four-judge panel had a very difficult time finding fault in.
Back at home, it’s at celebrity Chef Chuck Hughes’ restaurant Le Bremner that Smiles plies his trade. The Old Montreal joint is a few steps below street level, doesn’t have a sign, and serves up a short menu of creatively tweaked fresh seafood fare with old school Hip Hop bumping in the background – and Smiles runs the show.
“I came to eat here two days into the opening and I really loved what he (Hughes) was doing. There was an opening in the kitchen, so I started as a line cook. Three months in I became the sous-chef, and then six months later I became chef de cuisine. They were taking a chance just throwing me a new restaurant still trying to find its groove,” says Smiles.
But pressure-filled environments are where the talented Italian/Egyptian-Canadian seems to thrive. “I didn’t sleep for the first six months; I was terrified. But I knew this was what I wanted to do. I’m 27 (at the time). It’s my first real gig. People are ready to throw the axe down; ready to judge.” And much like his 13-episode TV competition, Smiles seized the opportunity and stepped up when it counted.
Leading up to Top Chef ’s season opener, Smiles had come off Le Bremner’s biggest catering events of the year, music festivals Osheaga and Heavy MTL. “I finished on a Sunday at 2 am, jumped on a plane at 6 am and started filming from there. It was a bit intimidating meeting all the chefs. Some had been preparing for one month and I hadn’t even slept the night before. So it was very stressful. You’re there for 6 weeks. They take away your phone. No contact with the outside world other than a few phone calls to your family and girlfriend here and there,” he reveals.
Like many other chefs, Smiles got his start washing dishes before earning the chance to handle food. After studying at the St. Pius X Culinary Institute, he pursued two residencies in Italian fine-dining establishments in Soverato, Calabria and Desenzano del Garda, Brescia.
He credits his Italian/Egyptian background for opening him up to so many different flavours from a young age. His mom is from Montreal with parents hailing from Frosinone, Lazio and his dad comes from Alexandria, Egypt, but worked for airline company Alitalia his whole life and by Smiles’ admission, “speaks better Italian than most Italians.”
His first real stare-down with adversity came in 2010 while vacationing in Thailand with his girlfriend Jenny. “We wanted to backpack across Southeast Asia. It was always something I wanted to do. And I absolutely love Asian food even though I don’t cook it. Six days into our trip, we got onto an overnight double-decker bus to get to Chiang Mai, 12 hours north of where we were. All flights and trains were completely booked because it was Mother’s Day, which is the biggest holiday in Thailand. Two hours into the ride, our bus flipped. Five people died. My girlfriend Jenny went to the hospital and underwent surgery,” he recalls. “My life flashed before my eyes, and it was then that I really asked myself what it was that I wanted to do with my life. It’s when I realized nothing else matters besides doing what you love. I got a second chance. It was like a rebirth – just crazy.”
“I feel like in this business there needs to be a rebirth. We’re such fighters. You always hear about guys that were alcoholics, coming out of rehab and becoming great chefs. Like Anthony Bourdain who was a heroin addict and then became a great writer and TV personality,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but it seems like this business brings people together that have gone through the wringer.”
From escaping death on a Thai bus, to running a hot restaurant and coming in a close second on Top Chef Canada, it’s safe to say the three years since Smiles’ re-awakening lend to his assertions rather nicely.
Try Danny Smiles' easy recipes