Indigenous chef visiting Maskwacis explores reconciliation through food

A well-known Indigenous chef making an episode of a travel and food show in the Alberta community of Maskwacis says it will centre on the healing power of food.

Rich Francis chose Alberta community as one of 5 locations for his show Red Chef Revival

Rich Francis speaks to a group of Maskwacis residents about how to recapture their culture through traditional foods. (Delorna Buffalo-Makinaw)

A well-known Indigenous chef making an episode of a travel and food show in the central Alberta community of Maskwacis says it will centre on the healing power of food.

The program "will bring that positive message to our community that food can be used for healing and for bringing friends and family together," Rich Francis told CBC News.

The former Top Chef Canada finalist picked Maskwacis, 95 kilometres south of Edmonton, as one of five communities to be featured in Red Chef Revival — a travel and food series hoping to reclaim Indigenous cuisine in First Nations communities across the country.

"With each episode we have certain themes like survival, we have healing and we're going to be developing more as we go along," said the Saskatoon-based Francis, who is also the author of a cookbook called Closing the Gap: Truth and Reconciliation Through Indigenous Foods.

"Maskwacis is healing," Francis said of the community formerly known as Hobbema, which incorporates Ermineskin Cree Nation, the Louis Bull Tribe, Montana First Nation and Samson Cree Nation. Its people have struggled with gang violence, youth suicide, alcohol abuse and high unemployment.

On Sunday, the first day of a three-day television taping for his series, Francis welcomed a small group of residents to sample a meal of moose meat.

"Food, what it does, is it takes you back to a time and place," he said. "Hopefully it starts something, and that's all you can hope for as a chef."

On Monday, Francis posted on Facebook that his experience in Maskwacis had been "heavy" for him. "Emotional and creative and it takes its toll on me," he wrote: "This work outside of the kitchen is unlike anything I've ever done ... the reach of an Indigenous chef now goes beyond the kitchen."
Chef Rich Francis said his first two days at Maskwacis were "heavy" for him. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Vernon Saddleback, chief of Samson Cree Nation, said he was excited when he heard that Maskwacis was going to be showcased by Francis and his show.

"We're just so blessed that he would choose us," Saddleback said.

Francis noted that each Indigenous band had its own pre-colonial Indigenous cuisine, but many of the foods were lost to First Nations culture during colonization.

"Indigenous cuisine ... we're starting to rediscover it," he said. "It was forcibly taken from us, we got stuck.

"We're now in a place where we can start moving forward."

Francis served up moose nose on a bed of wild rice to some Maskwacis residents on Tuesday. (Rich Francis/Facebook)

Maskwacis has a long-standing hunting tradition where identified members will hunt wild moose and bison to be put into a communal freezer, which operates like a food bank. The meat is often boiled and served to the community's elders and young people, Saddleback said.

Moose nose is a delicacy, and Francis devised a way to modernize it — simmering the meat in beef fat, then plating it on a bed of wild rice ragout surrounded by popcorn and chokecherry.

Other dishes on the menu included bison prime rib with sage and cinnamon bark, and a whole moose leg garnished with sage and sweetgrass.

Buffalo prime rib with sage and cinnamon bark, a unique take on traditional food, by chef Rich Francis. (Rich Francis/Facebook)

Everything Francis used in the dinner was hunted and given to him by people in Maskwacis.

"You can taste the passion that he has in the food," Saddleback said after Sunday's meal. "Call it modern Indigenous, call it contemporary, call it whatever … at the end of the day, it's just our food."

'It sure uplifts those kids'

During the television shoot, Francis also packed a kitchen at Nipisihkopahk Secondary School with laughing children, teaching them how to make a traditional moose-meat salad. 

A student prepares moose salad in Maskwacis under the instruction of chef Rich Francis. (Rich Francis/Facebook)

Community/school elder Dale Simon was overseeing the class. He said the visit by Francis was inspiring for the children.

"There's been many suicides in our community the last couple of months. It puts a dent in our community, " Simon said. "And when you have someone like Rich come in, it sure uplifts those kids."   

Saddleback hopes the television show, and the cooking lessons, will remind his community of its own beauty.

"For him to bring that message to our community, that food can be used for healing and for just bringing family and friends together … it's just amazing," he said.

Francis and his team will move across Western Canada and other parts of the country over the next six months, taping the remaining four segments of the show.




Anna Desmarais is a videojournalist for CBC North based in Whitehorse. Before that, she spent two years as the South Slave correspondent based in Hay River, N.W.T. She's also reported from Yellowknife, Ottawa, Edmonton, Toronto and Kathmandu. Reach her at anna.desmarais@cbc.ca or @anna_desmarais.