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Smeets is no stranger to food competitions; he participates in several per year when he isn’t busy cooking Apple Farm’s traditional comfort food. In fact, Smeets was discovered at a competition in Orange County where they were casting for the show.
The “Cutthroat” competition was a little different, as competitors were able to sabotage each other by taking away ingredients, cooking mediums or other necessities.
“I enjoyed the show and the whole process, and learning how TV is made,” Smeets said. “But being sabotaged, I didn’t like the fact that I was unable to show what I could actually do.”
Though Smeets didn’t advance to the final round after a sabotage took away kitchen utensils such as mixing bowls and pans, it didn’t have to do with his lack of experience.
Smeets started cooking for himself on a camping trip when he was 12.
“When I first realized I wanted to be a chef, I was in Boy Scouts,” he said. “We would go fishing for fresh trout and cook over the open fire. We would wrap potatoes in foil and cook them in the coals.”
This basic introduction to cooking turned into something more a few years later, when he started helping his mother in the kitchen.
In fact, it was a kitchen utensil that got him excited about the cooking process in general.
“I was really into knives; that’s why I was in Boy Scouts,” Smeets said. “I had all the pocket knives and then wanted to explore other types of knives. I got my first set of kitchen knives and helped my mom in the kitchen by chopping vegetables.”
His love of cooking kicked up a notch when Smeets took a food class at Newport Harbor High School that lead to him competing in the California Restaurant Association Student Invitational.
His former teacher, Janet Dukes, helped Smeets and his teammates to first place in the state and second place nationally.
“(Smeets) was enthusiastic, always wanting to learn,” Dukes said. “He was one of my top students.”
Dukes led several teams to victory, and knew what it took to participate in a competition that tested culinary skills.
“It is hard to put yourself out there and have everyone critique you,” Duke said. “Being willing to step out and do that makes you think outside the box. You become more creative. I think that what makes (Smeets) a great chef is his creativity.”
Smeets went on to be trained formally as a chef at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
After completing his education there, he went on to work at fine-dining establishments in the city such as Spruce, BIX Restaurant and the Sir Francis Drake Hotel restaurant.
This shaped Smeets’ early love of what he calls “fancy food.” However, his style as a chef has evolved since then.
“When I first started cooking, I was really into gastronomy and fine dining,” Smeets said. “It has kind of evolved into using fresh, local, organic produce, sustainability and local farming practices.”
Moving to the Central Coast
After working in several restaurants in San Francisco, Smeets wanted a change of scenery. He visited San Luis Obispo while wine tasting and fell in love with the atmosphere.
Soon after, he got a job at Apple Farm Inn as Chef de Cuisine. Stephen Walls, executive chef at Apple Farm, wanted to hire someone to change some of its menu items.
“We have always been a real comfort food type of establishment, with mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, homemade meat loaf, house-cooked turkey,” Walls said. “We wanted to keep the comfort food experience, but we wanted to expand on it.”
He saw the passion and creativity Smeets possessed and decided to give him a chance.
“He has taken the available proteins and added his creative eye to presentation and flavor elements to the plate,” Walls said.
In the two years Smeets has worked at Apple Farm, he has improved in his artistic plate presentations and his creativity by combining certain flavors with the proteins he uses, Walls said.
The Central Coast and the organic food Apple Farm serves has influenced Smeets.
“I think the San Luis Obispo atmosphere changed my philosophy on food,” Smeets said. “I was ready for a change when I moved from San Francisco. I still really like fine dining, but that is not so much my emphasis. It is not so much to make the plate look beautiful as to make the food taste really good.”
Smeets has led an initiative at Apple Farm to order produce directly from local farmers, instead of shopping at farmers’ markets with the masses.
The farm-to-table theme found throughout the Central Coast is now central to Smeet’s style, and is incorporated in what he describes as his new style of cooking.
“I like to describe my cooking style as how a farmer would cook if they were a chef,” Smeets said. “I take organic, fresh produce and highlight it in the simplest way possible.”
Smeets wasn’t the only competitor on “Cutthroat Kitchen” with a diverse culinary background. He competed against a high school cooking teacher, a former “Hell’s Kitchen” contestant and a Jamaican restaurant owner.
“They were good competitors,” he said. “It was close the whole time. I think there were moments when they got lucky and moments when I got lucky.”
The show consists of three different rounds in which competitors could get sabotaged. They have 30 seconds to go into the pantry to gather ingredients and plan their meal based around certain parameters.
“You get in (the pantry) and you are just frantic and can’t think straight,” Smeets said. “You are thinking of everything you need, but you can only grab one thing at a time.”
To prepare for the hectic atmosphere of the show, Smeets practiced with his girlfriend, who came up with three random ingredients and had him mentally plan out the dish he would make in one minute.
He also prepared by making specials at Apple Farm. Coming up with specials for the day was helpful because chefs on the show are supposed to use whatever ingredients are available in the kitchen.
Smeets also planned out how to best get around sabotages — a unique component of the show.
“One of my strategies for the show was to get all of my things that needed to be cooked done right away because they have a mid-round sabotage where they take something away from you,” he said. “I would try to get all my cutting and cooking done in the first round.”
But unfortunately, all the preparation in the world could not make up for the sabotage Smeets had to endure. Ultimately, Smeets was eliminated when he prepared a Hawaiian lunch plate with no protein.
“My chicken wasn’t fully cooked, so I couldn’t serve it,” Smeets said. “I called it a vegetarian Hawaiian lunch plate just to be kind of funny. I pretty much knew I was going home at that point.”
Walls and others at Apple Farm watched Smeets’ episode and were proud of the effort he put into it.
“His creativity showed through with the limitations of what he had to work with,” Walls said.
Walls was especially impressed with the response of Alton Brown, the host of “Cutthroat Kitchen.”
“Even Alton Brown said that some of the greatest chefs could not survive some of the sabotages that round,” Walls said. “That was really a compliment, in my opinion. I think he was trying to let him know that he was brutally sabotaged and there wasn’t much he could have done with what he had to work with.”