It’s Friday night in Vancouver, the last weekend of the city’s popular Dine Out Festival, and my mother and I have managed to nab a table at downtown Vancouver’s popular Salmon n’ Bannock bistro. My mom, who was raised on Canada’s northwest coast, is right at home. She has a deep affection for First Nations art and the bistro is a showcase for it. We’ve never visited before but we’re welcomed like old friends, as are other patrons, and we feast on the likes of tender elk medallions with elderberry sauce and a seafood medley accompanied by mouth-watering, spruce-flavoured wild rice.
This is my most recent experience with aboriginal cuisine in Canada. Two other meals stand out. The first was during a visit to Haida Gwaii where chef Roberta Olsen laid out an unforgettable spread for her international guests: octopus, seaweed, herring roe, kelp and sea asparagus. The other dinner was served at an event at Calgary’s Hotel Arts, where Top Chef Canada finalist Rich Francis, a Gwich’in chef from the Northwest Territories, cooked up a plate that included melt-in-your-mouth salmon smoked with white sage and cedar berries.
Given his high profile on Top Chef Canada, Francis has arguably helped catapult the notion of modern indigenous fare into the mainstream. But there are indications everywhere that aboriginal culinary innovators are getting their stride in kitchens countrywide.
Chef Stacey Jones and sous chef Ryan Lalonde / Salmon n’ Bannock / Photo by John Lehmann
“Now is the perfect time and place for us to get this out there,” says Francis during a telephone interview; he was on a road trip to Edmonton when we spoke, but currently calls Ontario’s Six Nations Reserve home.
“We’re not just talking one demographic. We’re talking from Indian country to every day foodies. Everyone’s interested. There are so many culinary influences you can pull from on Turtle Island,” he continues, referencing the name many aboriginals give to North America. “Influences from Navajo to Mi’kmaq. Personally, I’m really interested in the diet of the Haudenosaunee people. They were primarily vegetarian—eating corn, beans and squash. The three sisters.”
Francis, who plans to open a restaurant called District Red, likely in the Toronto area, says First Nations everywhere are “decolonizing – it’s happening in the arts and in the fashion industry. Tanya Tagaq is doing it with music and chefs are doing it with food. We’re banding together and exploding boundaries. It’s a pretty cool time.”
Salmon n’ Bannock wild berry pie / Photo by John Lehmann
Shane Chartrand, who works at River Cree Resort & Casino’s Sage in Edmonton, agrees it’s an exciting time to be an aboriginal chef in Canada. Chartrand—a Cree chef with Metis influences who just competed in Chopped Canada and who will be part of an upcoming culinary in the world’s largest teepee—is currently working on what he calls a “progressive indigenous cookbook.”
“Ten years ago, we couldn’t talk about aboriginal cuisine. People would laugh. Now they’re excited. We’re on the edge of something huge,” says Chartrand. “I had a request recently to feed the famous Italian chef Alessandro Porcelli when he was visiting Canada. We took him out to the country, sat in the dirt around an open fire with no knives or forks and fed him rabbit legs, bison short ribs, bannock and deer osso buco. He loved it.”
Ben Genaille, a Cree from Manitoba who works at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa in Osoyoos, B.C., says the aboriginal world in Canada has been centred around survival, as opposed to the evolution of its culture. “Now, we are dusting off our culture, evolving it, and sharing it with each other and the world,” says Genaille, who has headed up the aboriginal team at the Culinary Olympics twice in Germany and who hopes to return in 2016.
“When I teach young First Nations people about aboriginal food, they always think it’s so boring at first. But then I tell them to consider the earth, the land, the water and the sky. We’re talking potatoes, flowers, berries, yellow carrots, jerusalem artichokes, scallops, oysters, rabbit, venison, deer, moose, ducks and pheasants. These are all aboriginal ingredients. And these are just to name a few. When they hear this, you can see the excitement on their faces.”
Back at Salmon n’ Bannock, sous chef Ryan Lalonde works closely with head chef Stacey Jones. Jones is a classically trained chef who hails from Vancouver Island’s Nuu-chah-nulth community. Lalonde—who was raised in foster care and is, as he says, “native by grace”—likes to put a contemporary twist on Salmon n’ Bannock’s traditional fare. Lalonde says he hopes that what’s happening in aboriginal culinary circles eventually transcends race.
“We’re all people of this earth. This is what we’re supposed to be doing. Head-to-tail cooking, not being wasteful and being connected with the ingredients we’re using,” says Lalonde thoughtfully. “Good, healthy food is a human right.”
Salmon n’ Bannock chef Stacey Jones / Photo by Suzanne Ahearne
Inez Cook, who co-owns Salmon n’ Bannock with business partner Remi Caudron and who recently made contact with her biological relatives in the Nuxalk community of Bella Coola, B.C., insists that, in the end, her restaurant is really all about community.
“All of our employees are First Nations. We each have our own stories and people who visit the restaurant are interested in hearing these stories,” says Cook—who just celebrated the bistro’s fifth anniversary. “And, we take great pride in serving delicious aboriginal comfort food with a modern take.”
My mom and I wrap up our meal at Salmon n’ Bannock with hot caramel lava cake served with maple whipped cream. We practically hug the staff goodbye as we leave. Of course, when we hear later that this cozy, unpretentious bistro downtown Vancouver has won the city’s Dine Out Festival award for “Best Dining Experience”—we’re hardly surprised.
— Kim Gray
*Note from Editor: This is the first story in a series that we’re creating in an arms length collaboration with Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia. This post was not reviewed or edited before publication.