This is the eighth instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This month: Danny Smiles.
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
— Dr. Seuss; Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Danny Smiles was born Daniele Francis in May 1985, to immigrant parents: his father hailed from Egypt, his mother from Italy. Growing up in Anjou with two older sisters and a younger brother, “it was super busy and I was extremely hyperactive,” the frequently fidgeting chef recalls.
Smiles attended Académie St-Louis de France for elementary school and had a short stint at Collège Regina Assumpta for high school, but “I was kicked out for bad behaviour,” he says. “I just didn’t want to be there. The structure was really not for me.” He was such a hellraiser that “they told my parents they regretted opening up their enrolment and allowing boys to attend!”
Smiles — so called by friends for his affable grin — was an especially athletic kid, with a particular love for soccer, hockey and snowboarding. He also played violin for seven years, starting at the tender age of five, and jokes how there were “still no signs of cooking yet” as a young teen. Music was his prevailing passion, and he remembers a difficult moment when he broke the news to his parents about a change he wished to make.
“It was the first crushing moment, but I told my parents: ‘I don’t want to play (violin) anymore. I want to play drums.’ ” Despite his worries, his parents were fine with his decision.
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
Smiles’s family lived in a semi-detached home; his cousin lived on the other side of the wall and was in a rock band. Smiles took up the drums and joined the fray next door — and soon did the same at school.
“I loved playing the drums, so I went to Collège de Montréal and joined the music program. That’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to really concentrate on music and play for the rest of my life.”
After high school, Smiles attended Vanier College. But between his lacklustre enthusiasm for school and his new-found freedom as a CEGEP student, much class-cutting ensued. It was becoming clear that some decisions needed to be made.
“My upbringing was pretty strict,” Smiles says. “From the age of 15 I was working at my parents’ hotel. I was the busboy, washing dishes, and I thought, ‘Wow, I could just go to cooking school.’ It’s pretty easy: making (soup) stocks, washing salads — it was like a dishwasher who did a bit more. But I didn’t know how I was going to tell my parents I wanted to quit school.”
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You are on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
When he shared the news with his parents, it didn’t go nearly as well as when he told them he wanted to switch musical instruments. But Smiles bit the bullet and enrolled in the Pius Culinary Institute.
“I understood their frustration over me taking up a trade. In 2003, cooking still wasn’t the most popular thing.”
Smiles wasn’t certain about becoming a chef, and planned his time at culinary school as a kind of hiatus. He hoped a year there might afford him some time to consider his career choice and solidify plans for the future.
He recalls how he assured his parents: “ ‘Give me a year in cooking school, and I will figure it out.’ … Then I went to cooking school and f—ing loved it!”
Smiles began cooking at the Italian restaurant Sapori Pronto, for one of the original owners of the famed (and now closed) Le Latini, while still in his rock band. Therein lay his inner conflict: a love of music playing against his love of cooking.
“What do I concentrate on: music or food? I knew it had to be one thing. It was hard — like being at the crossroads. But cooking felt more secure, and I liked that. So I made the decision to play music for fun.”
With a desire to learn more about his heritage, Smiles travelled throughout Italy. “I reconnected with my roots.” He staged under pastry chef Fabio Bertoni and Gualtiero Marchesi, considered to have been the founder of modern Italian cuisine. “Just being surrounded by great people in their field was pretty inspiring.”
Being so young at the time, Smiles admits he didn’t arrive in Italy with the backbone necessary to work in such tempestuous kitchens. But due to those chefs’ military-like ways, he says, he left all the stronger for the experience.
And when things start to happen,
Don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.
In 2010, Smiles was hustling at Sofia, the St-Laurent Blvd. restaurant du jour, while doing catering work on the side with his girlfriend. They were saving for a month-long vacation in Thailand they were both ecstatic to take, but six days into the trip, something terrible happened.
“My girlfriend and I got into a huge bus accident. It was really insane. I was the only one not injured on the bus. Four people died; my girlfriend was undergoing surgery in one hospital while I was in another hospital. It was complete chaos.”
The accident “opened up my eyes,” Smiles says. “I almost needed something that crazy in my life to realize what I wanted. I’d still be floating (if not for the accident). I’m a floater, a dreamer. I have always been like that.”
Smiles returned home more focused than ever, and a visit to Old Montreal brought him face to face with rock-star chef Chuck Hughes, triggering a seismic move.
“My buddy asked me if I wanted to go eat at Chuck’s new restaurant, Le Bremner. Chuck and I knew each other from the industry.”
It turned out they were looking to hire staff for the kitchen, and within minutes it was decided that Smiles would attend a training day. He already had a job, but knew this was an opportunity he had to take.
“So I do training for a day, and they wanted me to come back the next day,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I could come back in a few days — I have another job and need to leave on good terms.’ ”
Smiles quickly climbed up the ranks at Le Bremner, going from sous-chef to chef de cuisine within six months, but it wasn’t without its trials and tribulations.
“I started working like a beast. I have Chuck’s career on my shoulders, Bremner’s reputation on my shoulders. We were serving about 11 people on a Tuesday night. Critics in the city did not enjoy the restaurant. They seemed confused. People were not loving it.
“I am now 27; it’s my first big gig in the city. If people don’t like it, I am gone!”
Danny Smiles assembled an old-school Italian sandwich as a treat for a late fall day.
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
Who soar to high heights.
Undeterred, Smiles hit his stride by surrounding himself with those who shared a passion for the eclectic seafood/comfort food restaurant. A new energy was breathing life into his kitchen and the food he served.
“I turned it around. I started bringing in my friends — people I have known for a long time. Same vision, same passion, same work ethic.
“I worked seven days (a week) straight for a year. This was my home. If I could have put a bed in here, I would have,” he says, pointing to Le Bremner’s floor.
“Organically, the food just got better — just being more real and authentic,” he says. “I know it sounds corny, but it felt like I was explaining my life story through plates of food.”
Considering his appreciation for his heritage, it was hardly surprising (but still delightful) when Smiles opted to visit a childhood haunt for our Beyond the Plate food adventure.
As a young boy, Danny would accompany his father on weekend shopping expeditions. One favourite destination was La Baie des Fromages on Jean-Talon St. E. On our nostalgic outing, we collected scrumptious old-school ingredients for a tantalizing Italian sandwich that we assembled and shared at Mount Royal’s Beaver Lake.
After taking stock on a glorious late fall day, remembering the heights and depths of his life and career, Smiles shares that he and his longtime girlfriend are expecting their first baby in a few short months.
“That’s the real success for me.”
The places you’ll go!
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on November 29, 2018