“We had to consider how we wanted to raise our children”: Why one Toronto chef left the restaurant industry and moved to Grey County
When the pandemic hit, Erin Smith was working as the chef de cuisine at McEwan at Yonge and Bloor. After more than a decade in the industry—and with three children under 10—she and her husband, Brandon, also a hospitality vet, decided to head north for Grey County, where they now own a four-bedroom bungalow and 12 acres of land. They also set up a new business, Smith Dining, which offers private, in-house fine dining to Grey County residents. We spoke with Erin about packing up and leaving town, and what it’s like being her own employer.
—As told to Rebecca Tucker
“I entered the culinary program at George Brown right out of high school, in 2005. My husband, Brandon, and I met when I was still in culinary school, and he was working as a server. We both applied to the McEwan Group at around the same time: he was hired at One, in Yorkville, and I started out on garde manger in the kitchen at Bymark. I worked my way up, and became a sous chef by the time I was 24.
“When the pandemic hit, Brandon was still working at One, as a bartender, and I was chef de cuisine at McEwan Foods at Yonge and Bloor. I was very happy where I was, career-wise. I didn’t see myself leaving the company. But things change, especially when you have a family. We have a four-year-old, a six-year-old and an eight-year-old; working full-time as a chef, while also being a full-time mother, had its compromises. I had already made the choice to shift from working in a restaurant kitchen, where shifts are 12 hours long, to working at McEwan Foods, which allowed me to be more present with my family. But the pandemic really forced us into a position where we had to sit back and consider what we wanted, how we wanted to live our lives, and how and where we wanted to raise our children.
“It’s sort of funny, because Brandon and I had always been full-on city people. We loved Toronto and we never, ever thought we’d leave it. We bought a loft in the Junction before we were married, and once we had our kids, we moved to a four-bedroom detached home off the Danforth. We didn’t see ourselves ever leaving the city—when we talked about what our life would look like 20 years down the road, we figured we would still be in Toronto.
“But as much as we love the city, we also love snowboarding, hiking, and kayaking, and being a part of nature. My in-laws live in Grey County, so we would visit at least once a year, and really indulge our love of the great outdoors while there. When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves wanting more of a balance between work, and our active, outdoor lifestyles. Grey County offered all of these things.
“We started looking at properties in Prince Edward County and Grey County. We preferred Grey County because there’s great hiking and camping in the warmer months, and there are places to go skiing and snowboarding in the winter. In the summer of 2020, when we finally decided this was actually something we wanted to do, I was still working full-time at McEwan. Brandon wasn’t working, because of the lockdown. We were driving up to Grey County—both of us, and all three kids—at least once a week, over the course of three months, to look at houses. We probably saw 25 to 30 houses before we found our place.
“We saw so many beautiful properties. The market was so hot at the time and we kept losing the opportunity to even make offers, because houses were getting snapped up so quickly. We put an offer in on the house we bought without even going to see it in person—we only looked at an online listing. And it had only been on the market for 15 minutes—literally 15 minutes. My father-in-law went to look at the house for us, and he let us know that it needed a little bit of TLC, but we don’t shy away from work. Brandon is very handy. We put in an offer in July, and we got it. We sold our house in Toronto, and moved into our new home in Grey County on September 24, 2020.
“It was difficult for both Brandon and I to walk away from a company where we’d each worked for more than a decade. I gave ample notice and I left on good terms—I called Mark McEwan personally and told him I’d be leaving.
“Our new home is a four-bedroom bungalow on 12 acres of land. Having land was really important to us. About five acres of it is clear, and the rest is mainly hardwood forest. It’s already been a wonderland of foraging—just the other day, I foraged about 15 pounds of bluefoot mushrooms. We’re going to keep it mainly as it is, but we do have plans to build a big garden next spring.
“Brandon and I had always talked about starting a business together. Once we relocated, we realized that there was something missing that the people of Grey County would really love: a high calibre of cuisine and fine dining, in your own home—and that’s when we decided to launch Smith Dining. Brandon runs the front-of-house service, and I run the culinary side of things. Our menus are designed in collaboration with our customers, so they’re never the same twice, and we use as much local produce and products as possible, which is really easy, because Grey County has such a bounty of farmland and local producers. I can go down the street and talk to someone about ordering pigs and cattle. We did about six to eight months of planning before we got things off the ground. Just through word-of-mouth, we were able to book a few dinners; now, we do two or three dinners per week, and we’re booked four months in advance.
“We provide everything from passed hors d’oeuvres and platters for cocktail parties to our 6 course tasting menu, which is definitely our most sought-after offering. Brandon recommends wine pairings with local vineyards, and he creates custom cocktails, as well. People love having the fine-dining experience in their own homes. They can enjoy the company of their guests without the stress of hosting. Plus, we fully clean up after ourselves, leaving their kitchen impeccable when we are finished.
“The community up here is amazing, whether the people have lived here for years or folks like us who have just recently made the move. Everything is a little bit more relaxed—it’s not about always having your head down, tunnel-vision focused on your career—and everyone in the community supports one another. If we chose to work every single night, and offer our service every night of the week, we could, but we don’t feel like we have to. Our children are so young, and these years are so precious to us. We don’t want to miss them. Our boys were total city kids, but being able to go fishing on the weekends or build a fort in the woods—and just generally being outdoors more—has been great for them. They’ve blossomed up here. Our youngest, who’s four, will definitely be a country kid, through and through.
“We still own a condo in Toronto, at Queen and Broadview, which we’re currently renting out. The decision to leave didn’t happen out of the blue, but the pandemic definitely gave us the push we needed to leave the city and start our own business; and for me, being able to stretch my culinary legs into private fine-dining has been really wonderful. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”