Fort McPherson 'Top Chef' returns home to cook with students

It's been 17 years since Fort McPherson-born chef Rich Francis last visited his home, but he said his roots in the community are what inspired his cooking in the first place.

Chef Rich Francis says his Gwich’in community is the foundation for his cooking

Gwich'in chef Rich Francis has returned to his home community to share his culinary artistry. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

It's been 17 years since Fort McPherson-born chef Rich Francis last visited his home, but he said his roots in the community are what inspired his cooking in the first place.

Francis is in the N.W.T.'s Beaufort Delta region this week, where he's sharing his culinary chops with others.

"Fort McPherson is actually where the foundation of my food starts," Francis said. "Because of the food memories that I have from that time in my life."

He was raised in the community and went to school there until about Grade 2, when he moved to Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario.

Francis had a life-changing opportunity when he became the first Indigenous chef to appear on the Food Network's Top Chef Canada, where he came in third place.

"I think not winning was probably the best thing for my career. People really started to take notice, people were really intrigued now about pre-contact, pre-colonial Indigenous food."

Now he's back in his home region as part of a project to pass on his knowledge. Sharla Greenland, a school counsellor at Inuvik's East Three School, helped organize the visit.

Francis said Greenland proposed visiting all the Gwich'in communities in the region.

"I thought that was really smart," he said.

Multiple workshops

From Monday to Friday, Francis is conducting cooking workshops with students in Fort McPherson, Aklavik, Inuvik, Tsiigehtchic and Tuktoyaktuk.

Chef Rich Francis shares his knowledge at Inuvik's East Three Secondary School. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

"Being with Gwich'in people in Fort McPherson, I could feel such a strong connection. It was probably one of my better workshops that I'd done with the kids and I think it was just a matter of how we were able to connect through food."

He will also be showcasing his modern Indigenous cuisine on Saturday when he will cook a three-course fundraiser dinner at the school, including bannock ice cream sandwiches with a chocolate ganache for dessert.

All day Wednesday, Francis and Inuvik students cooked up a feast for the opening ceremonies of the 7th annual Northern Dene Games Summit.

Felicia Elanik, who is 15, was excited about the opportunity to cook with the Gwich'in Top Chef contestant.

15-year-old Felicia Elanik is inspired by chef Rich Francis. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Elanik is Inuvialuit and said cooking is ingrained in her. She would like to follow Francis's lead and become a chef herself.

"I always loved baking with my family, so I just thought I'd do something that I loved."

Elanik said having the opportunity to cook with Francis and see his professionalism showed her that northerners "have a chance too, and that they are able to make it as far as other people."

Future plans and new shows

Francis said he wants to eventually open a restaurant in Hamilton, Ont., where he can make country food cuisine with traditional foods, such as moose. He's willing to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to make that happen.

His culinary skills will be showcased in Red Chef Revival, which might be picked up by Netflix, he said.

Chef Rich Francis showed students in Inuvik how to make this moose taco. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

He is also set to come back to the region to shoot his new series with APTN called Wild Game.

Francis said since he began his television journey five years ago, he unexpectedly began to be looked at as a leader.

"Now I'm stepping into that role more and more every day. If people can get inspired and take something away from having spent time with me, then great."