One of the top chefs in Montreal, Danny Smiles, abandoned a new restaurant project and developped a high-end meal-kit company called Mise En Place instead.
The relationship between food and the COVID-19 pandemic is confusing and often frustrating. On one hand, the pandemic has crushed the restaurant industry and travel restrictions in Canada have led to a shortage of migrant workers essential to our farming industry. On the other hand, grocery stores and their employees are being recognized as foundational pillars of society, cooking and baking are increasingly becoming popular hobbies and good food, whether take-out or home-cooked, is considered to be one of the pandemic era’s last remaining luxuries.
When restaurants closed earlier this year, many chefs found themselves with plenty of time at home and for the first time in ages were cooking for themselves. One chef in particular was Danny Smiles, the former chef at le Bremner. Smiles, who has a young son, found himself cooking three meals a day for his family when his wife, after finishing maternity leave, went back to work full-time.
Leading up to the pandemic, Smiles was in the development stages of a new project, a Roman restaurant called Fortunato, but in mid-March, the project came to a grinding halt. Smiles had to face an evolving new reality.
“When the pandemic started, I was in a state of shock. The second day, I was like, ‘This is going to last a while.’ The third day I was like, ‘Okay, this is the reality, let’s go back to the drawing board.’” Smiles, who went from a head chef to a home cook, was struck with an idea that used his skills as a chef and adapted them to an emerging market. “How about we do a meal-kit company?” The proposition was readily accepted and went straight into production. “My partners and I built it in about 100 days.”
Some might question the pivot to meal-kits with restaurants being allowed to reopen under certain restrictions. But when asked about the move, Smiles had this to say: “The honest truth was just the uncertainty of restaurants. I’ve just always been someone who likes to keep his head above water.”
Torn between the challenges facing restaurants and his deep-rooted passion for cooking, Smiles made a choice. “Not being able to cook for people was something that worried me. Not being able to employ people, not being able to do what I love was all in jeopardy.” His new project, Mise En Place, was born out of that desire to keep pushing on.
Meal-kit services have grown immensely in popularity over the past five years. If you need proof, take a look at the curb on recycling day and you’ll no doubt see a healthy amount of meal-kit boxes lining the street. The booming industry has changed the way people shop for food. In Montreal, Good Food is at the top of the food chain offering a monthly meal-subscription service that delivers portioned ingredients and recipes directly to your door, often for as little as $5 per serving. It’s a service that promises clients convenient homemade food, at a low cost.
Danny Smiles, on the other hand, saw untapped potential in the meal-kit market, “[The other meal-kit services] are doing amazing, I have nothing to say [about them] –– I come from a chef background, I used to own a restaurant, I’m always trying to source the best ingredient possible –– that’s my cuisine, it’s very ingredient-driven.” Where most meal-kit companies put price first, Smiles champions ingredients. As a chef, Smiles’ menus are second to none, but most importantly he’s spent the last nine years at le Bremner sourcing the best ingredients available and it shows in his food.
The words mise en place resonate with every cook around the world. It refers to the fundamental practice of being properly set up to cook. More than just making cooking convenient, being, as they say, “En place” makes cooking better. Mise En Place as a meal-kit service embodies that practice. In addition to making cooking easy, it delivers high-quality ingredients, prepped and ready to cook with a recipe and instructional video that allows cooks, regardless of experience, to make restaurant-quality food at home. Meal-kit services typically appeal to cooks with little to no home cooking experience, but Smiles acknowledges that many people in the city are more than equipped for the task. “A lot of people know how to cook,” he says, but Mise En Place is about reducing the stress. “We want you to be able to make the meal in 15 to 20 minutes.”
Danny Smiles rightly acknowledges that on average the skill of the home cook has greatly improved compared to the early 2000s. Part of that development comes from individuals taking a greater interest in the products they’re cooking with. “I have friends –– it takes them six hours to do their groceries,” reflected Smiles. “They’re going to buy their tomatoes from Birri, they’re going to get meat, they’re going to get their cheese from the cheesemaker. I thought, ‘We have all these contacts, why don’t we do the work for the people and just deliver it.’” Mise En Place is about doing all the busy work so that its clients get more time in their day without sacrificing quality or taste.
In most ways, Mise En Place is about reimagining what the meal-kit service can be by appropriating the model and simply doing it better. For Smiles, that means better dishes from better ingredients, but it also means respecting ethical and sustainable work practices. “We just want to be as environmentally responsible as possible. All of our containers are compostable, we have electric cars for deliveries, we sourced compostable cryo-vac bags. You do what you can –– yes it costs money, but at least you feel good about it.”
We’re constantly being asked to adjust to doing things differently –– seeing spaces differently. We’ve adjusted to our homes also being our offices and to being classrooms for our kids. Maybe the next adaptation is to make our dining rooms and kitchens more like restaurants. Winter is quickly approaching and that existential dread surrounding restaurants is still very present. The future continues to be uncertain but by embracing and embodying the warmth and hospitality of restaurants in our own homes, especially by supporting businesses within the fragile ecosystem of farms, small suppliers and craftspeople, we’re actively keeping a torch burning for the future of restaurants. ■
For more about Danny Smiles meal kit company Mise En Place, please visit their website.
For more Montreal food coverage, please visit our Food & Drink section.