A renowned Edmonton chef and restaurateur has been forced to retire his apron, after lifelong health issues finally caught up to him.
When Brad Smoliak was born, his parents were warned by doctors he had a lethal congenital heart condition and didn't have long to live.
But Smoliak, now 55, defied the health experts, going on to carve out a career as a top-notch Edmonton culinarian, despite being told the profession would be too stressful for someone with his type of heart complications. He has cooked for celebrities like Queen Elizabeth and was a lead chef for scores of hungry athletes during the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 and the London Summer Olympics in 2012.
"When Brad was born, he never should have survived," said his wife of 30 years, Leanne Smoliak. "He is probably the most tenacious person I know."
Brad was born with what basically amounted to a backward heart, triggering a series of health scares and surgeries over the years, accompanied by nightmarish lengthy hospital stays and complications like pneumonia and stroke.
Nonetheless, in the 1980s he enrolled in the business administration program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). He later became a certified Red Seal chef and studied at the Napa Valley Culinary Institute of America and the Guelph Food and Technology Centre.
Besides working as a self-employed chef and restaurant owner for the past 20 years, Brad has worked as a chef consultant and is a certified research and development chef creating recipes and culinary plans for chain restaurants, grocery retailers and large-scale food manufacturers. He has developed and sold a variety of his own food products along the way, and wrote a book called The Canadian Barbecue Cookbook.
The Smoliaks were both born and raised in Edmonton and still call the Alberta capital home. They met in the early 1990s when Leanne, who is also a chef, was general manager at the former Philip's fine dining restaurant at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Brad answered her newspaper ad seeking someone to fill the assistant manager's job at the restaurant. Leanne said she knew immediately Brad was a perfect fit for the job.
But Brad came away from the interview wanting more than a job. When a friend asked how the interview went, Brad remembered he responded: "I'm not sure if I got the job or not, but that's the woman I'm going to marry." Brad took the job. They were married 13 months later.
Later in the 1990s, the Smoliaks founded and co-owned the Hardware Grill Restaurant, another popular fine dining restaurant that once stood on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton. Leanne did stints as executive chef and manager for the Holt Renfrew Cafe, and was senior manager for food and beverage at the landmark Hotel Macdonald. She later filled jobs with Edmonton Northlands, and the two Jubilee Auditoriums in Edmonton and Calgary.
In 2018, Brad had heart failure and was told he needed a transplant. But tests revealed his body could not handle a transplanted heart. "Three to six months is what you've got left," he remembers being told.
But a doctor at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute came up with an alternative plan, providing him with a battery-operated mechanical pump (which he calls Sid) that assists with blood flow and heart function. He wears batteries that are plugged into a wall at night. The device has served for three years as an artificial heart, although Brad notes it was technically designed to be used as just a temporary bridge while a patient awaits a transplant.
"Moving to a transplant is not really an option for me," he said.
This summer Brad posted a statement on Facebook announcing he was closing his latest business called Kitchen by Brad Smoliak, which operated for 10 years in downtown Edmonton as a "culinary studio" offering cooking classes, private and corporate parties and catered meetings.
He was "very disappointed that my doctor has told me the time has come to learn to take it easy," Brad stated in the posted message, admitting his physician knows "it will be a hard learning curve for me."
But Brad says he still keeps busy cooking at home, recently teaming up in the kitchen with his visiting 28-year-old son Nicholas, a physicist who works overseas but is also a part-time chef. The Smoliaks also engage in fundraising activities, particularly for the Mazankowski Institute. Brad gets called on by the hospital from time to time to speak with heart patients waiting for an artificial heart who may be nervous about their future. He also participates in a mentorship program at NAIT.
"Brad doesn't know how to take it easy," said Leanne. "Everybody he comes into contact with, I swear, becomes a better person for knowing Brad because they learn that life is amazing and rich and beautiful.
"This is not a lie -- he wakes up every morning singing."
Brad says everything in life is secondary to a person's health. "The time has come for me to put my health first," he said.
Even so, that doesn't mean the Smoliaks don't still enjoy a bottle of fine wine and great food. Brad said he knows he would not have survived his many lifelong challenges without the support and partnership of Leanne, and she credits him for making their life a continuing adventure.
"He just sucks every morsel out of life," she said.
There is a quote the Smoliaks say sums up their philosophy of life. They estimate they have handed out about 70 framed copies to heart patients.
The quotation's actual source is somewhat hazy but it is often attributed to Nanea Hoffman, a cancer survivor and founder of online magazine Sweatpants & Coffee.
The quotation reads: "None of us are getting out of here alive, so stop treating yourself like an afterthought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth you're carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There's no time for anything else."
To learn more about Brad's heart story, see bradsjourney.givetouhf.ca