Inuk chef celebrates Nunavut cuisine at Vancouver festival

Sheila Flaherty has become the first Inuk chef to cook at the Dine Out Vancouver festival, celebrating traditional northern ingredients on the national stage.

In a four-course meal, Sheila Flaherty featured ingredients like turbot and cloudberries

Sheila Flaherty has become the first Inuk chef to cook at the Dine Out Vancouver festival. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Sheila Flaherty of Iqaluit has become the first Inuk chef to cook at the Dine Out Vancouver festival, celebrating traditional northern ingredients on the national stage.

Flaherty has cooked in Greenland, New York City and on Masterchef Canada — and in January, she served her four-course menu to diners at Indigenous-owned and operated Vancouver restaurant Salmon n' Bannock. 

Her first course was grilled allannguaq mattaaq — narwhal skin — and her second course featured Arctic clams that she harvested in October with her husband Johnny. 

"That was a bit of a funny story, because the bistro where we were hosted — Salmon n' Bannock, Inez Cook is the owner," said Flaherty. "And she was pressing the chefs, this fall, to finalize our menus. And I said 'Inez, please be patient. I want to serve ammuumajut, and there's one last chance to go clam digging.'"

That month, Flaherty and her husband managed to harvest over 200 clams, which they vacuum-sealed to preserve for the Dine Out festival. 

Her third course was Nunavut turbot baked with butter, parmesan and capers. And for dessert, she served cheesecake and aqpik — cloudberries — which she and her husband also harvested themselves.

Whether she is cooking at home or on the world stage, Flaherty loves to celebrate Nunavut Inuit food. 

"It's really humbling to think about how I touch people with my sharing of food, place and people," she said.

And she says participating in the festival was a positive experience that may even open more doors for her in the future. 

"Now my circle is just that much bigger, with the fellow chefs I know out there in the world," she said. "It's just simply amazing to be a part of it all."

Festival features Indigenous culinary talent

Flaherty cooked as part of the festival's World Chef Exchange, where Vancouver-based chefs invite their colleagues, friends and mentors from around the world to visit the city and share their flavours. 

In 2020, the exchange program was paused due to COVID-19. But in 2021, festival organizers were eager to bring it back and feature Indigenous cuisines. 

When designing her menu for the festival, Flaherty was a bit nervous that her guests might not recognize all of her ingredients. But once she had the chance to explain her dishes to the diners, she said they were eager to dig in.

"I said to all of them … you know, this stuff right here in the first course, this is a typical supper for my husband and I," she said. "We can eat just a slab of it — simply, raw — for supper. But for people who aren't Inuit, to eat it raw might be a little too chewy. So I grilled it. 

"I was surprised — we had brought more than enough mattaaq, and people were asking if there were leftovers, if they could eat some more."

Festival manager Lucas Pavan said Flaherty and her fellow chefs made a major impression on diners — including himself — at each of their meals. 

"I know there were guests at each of the four dinners [who] said it was the most spectacular dining experience they'd ever had, both from a cuisine level and also from a cultural level," he said. "People remember the stories the chefs shared about their Indigenous culture and how the ingredients that they included in the dinners were so special to them as part of their childhood." 

For Flaherty, food is a family affair

As a child, Flaherty learned to cook by watching her father in the kitchen, standing on a chair to watch as he measured and chopped. 

"My dad, to make sure that he cooked well for my sister and I growing up, he took a French cuisine course," said Flaherty. "So it's not every day that we were eating gourmet meals, but certainly we had things like duck a l'orange."

These days, when she experiments with integrating Inuit ingredients into recipes from around the world, her husband is her first taste-tester. 

And despite her national and international recognition, Flaherty says she is still a bit intimidated by stovetop bannock — that's her brother's specialty. 

Now that she has come back home to Iqaluit, Flaherty is hard at work on her culinary tourism business. She wants to welcome more visitors to Nunavut, so they can come and try the Inuit foods she loves.

With files from Cindy Alorut and Meagan Deuling