Photos by Virginie Gosselin

Renowned Montreal chef Danny Smiles has taken his talents out of town

…but only 45 minutes away, to a pretty magical place.

When news came that Danny Smiles, the former Bremner head-chef and icon of Montreal’s restaurant scene, was taking over as the executive chef of the Willow Inn in Hudson, I was taken aback. The last time I spoke with Smiles, he was launching his meal-kit service Mise En Place while waiting to open his highly anticipated first restaurant, Fortunato. As it turned out, due to some irreconcilable differences between the partners and investors, both Mise En Place and Fortunato are dead in the water. 

So what happened? How did it come to be that one of Montreal’s — one of Canada’s — most celebrated chefs was taking over the restaurant of a relatively unknown rural hotel 45 minutes outside of the city where he made his name?

Danny Smiles Willow Inn
Danny Smiles

“My girlfriend asked me if I knew about the Willow — she was thinking about getting married there. I reached out and they messaged us back right away. I was completely blown away by the spot.”

As he spoke, I could hear in his voice that his first visit to the Inn was revelatory. “They showed me the kitchen, they showed me the prep-kitchen, they showed me the rooms — I was like, ‘Is this a job interview?’ Then they told me they didn’t have a chef right now.”

Something about the town of Hudson, the tranquility of the area, felt like a weight being lifted off his chest. “I fed them a line, something super-vague like, ‘If you’re ever interested in doing something, let me know.’”

The Inn’s owners David Ades and Patricia Wenzel eventually did reach out to Smiles, inviting him to join them back at the hotel and talk about the possibility of him joining the team.

“I put together a 42-page proposal — I really wanted the gig. I’m going to be 36 and I just went through the worst year of my life. I wasn’t in the right headspace when I was doing Mise En Place. I was overworked, I wasn’t at Bremner anymore, the restaurant (Fortunato) didn’t open, I wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do. After coming to the Willow the second time, I thought to myself, ‘I could do something special here.’”

After a year of let-downs in the city, a life running the kitchen of a beautiful inn on the water seemed to offer a semblance of respite.

“I submitted the proposal and they said no.” 

For Smiles, it was a humbling moment and yet another disappointment in a period of unrelenting disappointment. Personally, I was shocked. I know the story ends with him getting the job but I couldn’t imagine the circumstance in which Danny Smiles would be turned down. Think about it: He’s a bonafide celebrity chef who, for whatever reason, wants to take over the restaurant of your small inn — how could you say no? But they did. So Danny headed back to Montreal, no closer to starting his next major project, questioning what the future would hold for him. But as fortune would have, a few days later, his phone rang

“It was David, he was like, ‘Listen… I think we want to go through with this.’” A day later, Danny would officially be named the executive chef. 

The Willow Inn, for perspective, is actually a quite storied hotel with roots leading back to the 1820’s. It’s a fixture of the picturesque town of Hudson and is emblematic of the region’s British heritage. But Hudson is changing and in recent years the hotel was beginning to lose its charm, slowly transitioning into a dining club for the town’s more senior residents. In 2017, Ades and Wenzel took their first major step in revitalizing property, hiring the Montreal-based interior designer Sophie Fidler to completely redesign the rooms. The result was stunning and, almost instantly, the Willow Inn went from being a fading relic to becoming one of Montérégie’s most charming and sought-after destinations. With the addition of a name and talent like Danny Smiles to the roster, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Willow Inn is on track to become one of the most sought-after destinations in the country. 

Passing by the charming hotel on the scenic road to Main Street, you immediately understand the Willow’s enduring appeal. If you forget for a moment that you’re just a stone’s throw from Montreal, you might think you’d arrived in the beautiful English countryside. That’s exactly the impression the Inn left on Smiles.

“The Willow just looked like the kind of seaside inn you’d find in Kent.”

And in the spirit of a good country inn (or French gîte), the food is meant to be simple — not more than a few ingredients per plate — but of the highest quality and cooked with great skill and care.

“During the pandemic I was reading a lot of books: St. John, The Sportsman, things like that.”

Danny’s goal is to bring the incredible bounty of the region to the fore, highlighting local producers while maintaining a menu that is simple and approachable.

Willow Inn Danny Smiles
Seafood roll and chips

I admit, that after I got over the initial surprise of Smiles taking over the inn where my mom used to host Murder Mystery parties in the ’80s, something clicked. I imagined myself waking up in a beautiful room, gazing out my window toward the Lake of Two Mountains. A hotel porter knocks on the door and a breakfast of local eggs, homemade bread and jam made of berries from the inn’s private garden is served. What could be better than that? It’s a dream that looks to soon become a reality.

Later this spring, the hotel plans to reopen to guests offering specially designed in-room dining experiences. Personally, I can hardly imagine a better version of the rural hotel experience than breakfast in the bed of an elegantly decorated room, in a charming country inn, cooked by one of Canada’s best chefs. 

Until then, the Willow is operating as a weekend-only casse-croûte serving take-out picnics to be enjoyed by the water. Pro tip: a short drive through Hudson will lead to Jack Layton Park which offers beautiful views of the Ottawa River. On the menu are some delightfully flaky-looking sausage rolls, oysters and matane shrimp guédille in addition to some reasonably priced natural wines, ciders and local beers. While Danny hasn’t expressed this outright, I’d say it’s safe to expect some lobster in the coming weeks, along with other seasonal delights as local ingredients continue to become more widely available. 

One thing I was adamant about clarifying was whether or not this was Danny stamping his name on a project only to turn it over to someone else entirely ( à la Gordon Ramsay’s Laurier BBQ). He quickly put an end to that line of thinking.

“I see myself here for the long-run. Being out here, I feel like it’s going to be a better life for my family.”

To get a taste of what Danny & Co. are doing at the Willow, pass by the inn on Saturday or Sunday where take-away picnics are served from 11 a.m. until they’re sold out.

For more about Willow Inn and its weekend takeout service, please click here.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.