From seal tartare to bison on a bun, Indigenous chefs are reclaiming their heritage one plate at a time

With two new Indigenous restaurants opening in Toronto, a new flavour is emerging on the food scene. But this trend is about much more than fine dining.

Aboriginal chefs in Canada are serving up a taste of 'food sovereignty'

Ku-kum, Toronto's newly opened Indigenous restaurant, offers dishes such as celery root and watercress potage drizzled with sweetgrass-infused oil (left). Top right is sweetgrass and lemon sorbet, sweetened with maple syrup. Middle right shows pan-seared halibut with whitefish eggs and julienned squash and Jerusalem artichoke puree. At bottom right, braised elk with sauteed turnips. (CBC)

Wander down restaurant row in any of Canada's major cities and you'll see a culinary mosaic of international offerings. But there's a culture that's been notably absent, until now.

A new surge of Indigenous restaurants opening across the country has chefs finding innovative ways to serve up First Nations inspired selections. It's a trend that many note is long overdue. While opening a restaurant in any large city is always a risky and expensive venture, Indigenous chefs hoping to do so face more roadblocks than other aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Chef Joseph Shawana says he's wanted to open his own place since he was 'a little kid.' (CBC)

In Toronto, the newly opened Ku-kum is a fine dining experience with Indigenous ingredients at the centre of the menu. Step into the kitchen and you'll smell hints of sage, sweetgrass and sizzling salmon, poached pike and game meat. The restaurant is the creation of chef Joseph Shawana, who first fell in love with food while cooking next to his grandmother on Manitoulin Island's Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve in Ontario.

Ku-kum is the Cree word for grandmother, a tribute to the women in his life who inspire his love of cooking. Shawana is Odawa, while his wife is Cree. 

Trained in classical French cooking, with its focus on rich and complex sauces, Shawana has adapted his cooking style at Ku-kum to highlight Indigenous ingredients.

"I cook simple," he says. "All my recipes are basically less than 10 ingredients." The results are artfully delicious.

Braised elk with fingerling potatoes, sauteed squash and onions, as served at Ku-kum. (CBC)

For Shawana and other Indigenous chefs, there are plenty of possibilities for creativity in the kitchen, but there are also some real challenges. It can be difficult to find consistent suppliers of the traditional ingredients they want to cook with. More than that, sourcing wild game, a central ingredient in almost all Indigenous cooking, is an even bigger challenge. Shawana says it took him two months to find a supplier for farmed elk with the right earthy flavour for one of his main dishes.

Working around wild game regulations

Although game hunted in the wild is a traditional part of most Indigenous diets, federal regulations allow only farm-raised game to be served in restaurants. This means moose and white-tailed deer, staples of Shawana's diet growing up, are off the menu at his Toronto restaurant. The chefs that do serve moose, which isn't farmed, do so only where regulations allow, such as at private events, special functions and pop-up demonstrations.

At top, Ku-kum's braised venison with celery root puree, chanterelles and butternut squash. To cook the often tough wild game, chef Joseph Shawana uses a sous-vide method, immersing the meat in a warm water bath for 26 hours to make it consistently tender. Bottom left; quail eggs, jars of cattail hearts and spruce tips. Bottom right; a three sisters mural adorns the restaurant, an homage to the influence of his mother, wife and grandmother as well as to the traditional crops of corn, beans and squash, also known as the three sisters. (CBC)

To help bring the taste of home to his Toronto restaurant, Shawana depends on a growing network of Indigenous suppliers for seasonal ingredients. As spring turns to summer you'll find wild leeks, balsam fir needles, sweetgrass and spruce tips in the Ku-kum pantry, as well as morels Shawana foraged himself. Using organic foods that are in season locally is an important practice in Shawana's kitchen. Respecting ingredients also means butchering the whole animal, as well as cutting down on waste. What other restaurants might throw out, such as the clarified butter used to braise the elk, he incorporates into other dishes.

Seal tartare is one ingredient that nearly didn't make it onto the Ku-kum menu. It's part of the Arctic trio appetizer, served along with beet and maple-cured salmon and Arctic char. Shawana says he hesitated to serve seal at first, but finally decided he would, for several reasons. First, he says, he likes the flavour. 'We know there'll be a little bit of people that will be upset about it,' he says. 'But it's part of the northern community's culture. So we're trying to pay homage to them, as we do with everything else.... It's all dietary needs of the Indigenous communities from east to west.' (CBC)

Pride on every plate

As to what's driving the Indigenous food trend, Shawana sees a growing sense of momentum. "There's been a lot of healing in the community," he adds, "especially with the apology [from Prime Minister Harper in 2008] and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

Just as there's been a resurgence in the Indigenous art and music scene, Shawana says, creating something on a plate "is a way of showing your pride."

On the other side of the culinary spectrum from Ku-kum's high-end menu is the quick and tasty street food of Toronto's newly opened NishDish. On the recent opening day of his new restaurant, chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette passed platters of food around to a huge crowd gathered on the street.

Chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette serves samples of a wild rice casserole at his newly opened restaurant, Nish Dish in Toronto. The Indigenous strain of rice is from Saskatchewan. (CBC)

At a microphone set up outside, he tells them he's from the Mink Clan, from north of North Bay. He's expanded his successful Anishinaabe catering business to create a permanent storefront on Toronto's busy Bloor Street West, a place to grab a hearty elk stew or a bison chipotle sausage on a bun with corn relish and a side of dandelion salad.

Reconnecting and reclaiming

For Ringuette, opening his own restaurant represents a reclamation of his people's traditional food and ceremony. His father was a hunter and he grew up learning to trap, hunt and fish, while also tapping trees and picking berries with his mother. Moving to the city, none of that food was accessible. Now he collects recipes that use traditional foods so he can reconnect with that past, and showcase that to his customers. 

Customers and staff celebrate the opening of Ringuette's restaurant, Nish Dish in Toronto in May. Some of the dishes served on opening day included a bison chipotle sausage with corn relish and elk stew with bannock or cornbread. (CBC)

He hopes his new restaurant opens up the possibility for his community to rediscover and celebrate traditional practices, such as cooking with the seasons, and planting traditional crops like the three sisters, the complementary crops of corn, beans and squash. For Ringuette, serving up dishes such as elk stew and sweetgrass tea represents what he calls food sovereignty. 

He is keenly aware of the reasons why it's taken so long for Indigenous restaurants to take hold as part of Canada's multicultural food scene. "Our food hasn't been accessible because we made treaties and agreements with the Canadian government, where we were put onto reserves and hunting and fishing was outlawed," he says. 

Planting seeds with teens

Ringuette envisions NishDish as a community hub. Working with Native Child and Family Services, the restaurant also provides training for Native youth. A culinary arts and small business program teaches students to cook, as well as how to plant and harvest traditional crops. He is looking forward to using the 300-year-old ancestral corn he was given as a gift from the Tuscarora Six Nations, which he and his students will be planting at Ashbridge's Estate.

On the left, birch-glazed wild sockeye salmon from Vancouver's Salmon n' Bannock Bistro. At top right, Nicole Johnny prepares 'Indian ice cream' made with soapberries. Middle right, a platter of smoked oolichans and herring roe on kelp. Inez Cook is the co-owner of the restaurant. She says oolichans, also known as candlefish, are very scarce and are traded amongst Indigenous communities like gold. At the bottom, Richard James prepares for the evening rush. (CBC)

Although there are a growing number of Indigenous restaurants in British Columbia, the Salmon n' Bannock Bistro is the only one in Vancouver. Nuxalk Nation co-owner Inez Cook says, "It's really great that First Nations people can come to a place and have their food in a restaurant."

She's proud to showcase her heritage through her menu, one that includes sockeye salmon with birch glaze, locally made venison and blueberry sausages.

Originally from Bella Coola, Cook grew up in Vancouver, and says that's partially what made it easier for her to start her business. Unlike many aspiring Indigenous chefs, she didn't have to move away from a smaller town or Reserve to open shop. 

"Imagine growing up in your culture and never being able to eat your food in a restaurant," she said.

Unfamiliarity with Indigenous cuisine is another real barrier to the success of Indigenous restaurants.  As Shawana says, "people just don't know the food."

Confronting 'white people expectations'

That can make it an uphill battle to provide an authentic experience, in addition to educating new customers. Chris Nuttall-Smith, former food critic with the Globe and Mail, says "There are all these European white people expectations on restaurants that don't gel with the idea of Aboriginal restaurants." 

Nuttall-Smith cautions that it's a risky business where it costs a lot of money to keep the doors open and where Canadians are less likely to support a restaurant they haven't experienced before.

But now, Toronto's Ku-kum and NishDish are just the latest in a growing number of Indigenous-owned and operated restaurants across the country. 

Ringuette thinks the timing for his restaurant is perfect. Describing NishDish, he says, "with many non-Indigenous people talking about how to build bridges from here, that's really what this is."

Ku-kum's Joseph Shawana feels now is the time to try. "It's a great year for Indigenous chefs and the community to break through our systematic barriers," he says.

"It's hard. It takes a lot of work, but I'm proof that coming from a small reserve and having the patience and the knowledge and the dedication to the job, that anything is possible."