'Forgotten art': Indigenous chef debuts traditional menu in Montreal

The tasting menu is one step in bringing those traditions to the table in a city where Indigenous dishes are often absent from the menu.

Chef George Lenser brings contemporary Indigenous food to the table

George Lenser is an Indigenous chef from B.C. who hopes to one day open his own restaurant in Montreal. (Laura Marchand/CBC)

Traditionally, recipes are passed down from one generation to the next. But within many First Nations communities, that knowledge transfer has been disrupted because of Canada's history of repression of Indigenous cultures.

That's part of the impetus behind Montreal-based chef George Lenser's project to bring Indigenous cooking to the restaurant scene, starting with an Indigenous tasting menu on Friday at the Écomusée du fier monde.

"Imagine those grandparents or your parents going to residential school or [being] part of the Sixties scoop or part of the Indian hospitals, and they went missing and they just did not have that knowledge," Lenser told CBC Daybreak.

"So there's that additional gap that really makes you forget."

Getting the right ingredients can be challenging.

For example, Lenser says that Oolichan grease, a fermented fish oil made from smelt in which the fish are dried, fermented and used as a seasoning base, can be next to impossible to find.

Chef George Lenser is preparing a five-course vegetarian tasting menu to premiere Friday. (Submitted by George Lenser)
It's a "forgotten art," according to Lenser, who has tried and failed at making his own in the past.

The tasting menu is one step in bringing those traditions to the table in a city where Indigenous dishes are mostly absent from the menu.

Lenser grew up in British Columbia and is part Wet'suwet'en, Nisga'a and Squamish.

He moved to Montreal three years ago to start working at Joe Beef restaurant.

Lenser hopes to open his own restaurant someday.

"It's going to be a slow process, there's lots of learning to be done."

Modern twist on traditional food

While some Indigenous restaurants in other parts of Canada aim to create a pre-colonial menu, Lenser's inspiration is more modern.

"We're contemporary people. We're here. We do very contemporary things, we're musicians that are rapping or in metal bands," he said.

His vision is reflected in his five-course vegetarian tasting menu that borrows from traditional offerings spanning the country, from east to west, with dishes such as his Three Sisters salad.

It's his own twist on the Mohawk dish, normally a stew made with game meat, that references the "three sisters" which Mohawks plant together: corn, squash and beans.

His gnocchi forestière, made with mushrooms and fiddleheads, is meant to mimic B.C.'s boreal forest.

Food as resistance

But one dish bears a particular significance: a rhubarb tart with wild rice whipped cream.

Dairy is not a traditionally Indigenous ingredient, but in the First Peoples Studies department at Concordia University, where he is a student, Lenser found that crème fraîche became more than an ingredient.

"I stumbled upon this story of this boy that was in charge of gathering the milk, processing it, and turning it into cream at one of the residential schools," he said.

The dairy would usually be sold or fed to the teachers rather than the students. The boy in the story would steal cream, store it in a bottle and sneak it in his shoe back to his room where it would sit overnight.

"Next day, next meal, it would turn into crème fraîche and ... he would pass it around to all the kids, and they would pour it into their oatmeal," he said.

"They would get that much more nutrients and flavour," said Lenser. "It's such beautiful way of resistance."

The event takes place Friday, June 2 from 4 to 9 p.m. at the Ecomusée du fier monde, 2050 Amherst Street. The five-course menu costs $22.

With files from CBC Daybreak