Indigenous chef tells his own story through food

Kū-kŭm, which means grandmother in Cree, is the name of Chef Joseph Shawana's restaurant. An image of his grandmother is painted onto a wall of the restaurant, reminding him to make food that tells his own story.

Chef Joseph Shawana named his restaurant after the woman who most inspires him - his grandmother

Chef Joseph Shawana stands in his kitchen at Kū-kŭm restaurant. Kū-kŭm means grandmother in Cree. The mural behind him is of his mother, and his and his wife's grandmothers. Shawana says they teach him everyday how to live life. (Grant Linton/CBC)

Pine needle and citrus sorbet. Seal tartare. Pickled cattail hearts and milkweed pods. These are just a few of the menu items you can order at Kū-kŭm restaurant in Toronto.

Chef Joseph Shawana is from the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island. At his restaurant he is fusing his Indigenous heritage with his training in traditional French cuisine.

A colourful mural takes up an entire wall of the restaurant, and on it are his mother and both his and his wife's grandmothers. So it's not surprising that Kū-kŭm means grandmother in Cree. For Shawana, these women are watching over him and inspiring the food he makes every day.

Shawana spoke to CBC Toronto anchor Dwight Drummond about the artistry he creates in the kitchen.

Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Dwight Drummond: What inspired Kū-kŭm restaurant?

Joseph Shawana: My love of cooking, my love of my culture, my family. Kū-kŭm means grandmother. Our grandmothers are teaching us every day about how to live life.

My grandmother sadly passed away a few years ago but she visits every now and then. I learned my cooking style from her. Keep it simple, straight-forward and do the best you can.

DD: What goes into the Indigenous food that you prepare?

JS: A lot of wild game. Elk, white-tailed deer, moose and a lot of fish. I utilize every single ingredient in the animal to pay respect to it and try to pair it with all the ingredients that are seasonal. Our diet is based on the seasons. In the spring we have berries come out, and all the nice wild edibles. Summertime is more harvesting, and in the fall and winter is when we start preserving a lot of the food that we picked and foraged throughout the spring and summer.

DD: What's your favourite?

JS: Moose is one of my favourites but we can't serve that here because of federal regulations. But elk has a nice wild, gamey taste and makes me feel like I'm at home again.

DD: What do you think is behind this resurgence of Indigenous cuisine right now?

JS: It's the perfect year to do it. It all comes down to timing. For me it was finding a place and opening the doors to the public to show my interpretation of art. I'm classically trained in French cuisine so I use that to relate to people instead of using 100 per cent of what I grew up with.

DD: What can people expect if they come to your restaurant?

JS: They can expect to have a friendly atmosphere and be welcomed. A lot of people that have come in felt like they were back home. We have a dessert on the menu that is sweetgrass crème brûlée. I steep the sweetgrass in the cream and make a traditional crème brûlée and you get a lot of the sweetgrass notes out of the cream. One woman who tried it cried.

I'm trying to paint my story onto a plate just like an artist paints on a canvas. It's their way of telling their story and this is my way of telling where I come from, what I've learned and where I want to take everything into the future.

DD: What are the three sisters?

JS: Corn, beans and squash. If you grow them together they help each other grow and expand, which is another reason why you can interpret this mural of the mothers as the three sisters, as well. They are helping everybody interpret life, be happy and just keep smiling. We have a three sisters soup on the menu. It's very simple and tasty. People love it.

Chef Joseph Shawana of Kū-kŭm restaurant

4 years ago
Chef Joseph Shawana of Kū-kŭm restaurant 2:47