The Current

Chef Shane Chartrand dishes on Indigenous cuisine and inspiring others through food

Edmonton chef Shane Chartrand has come a long way from flipping eggs at a truck stop restaurant, and from having little food to eat as a child in foster care. He tells us about his new book, Tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine, and the personal experiences that have shaped his culinary journey.

‘It’s about the ingredients from where you’re from,’ the Edmonton author says

Chef Shane Chartrand has honed his skills on television shows like Chopped Canada and Iron Chef Canada. He reveals the personal stories behind his culinary journey in his new book, Tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine. (Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance)

Edmonton chef Shane Chartrand has come a long way since his first cooking gig at a truck stop restaurant.

Back then, at 17, he was flipping eggs and serving up classic sandwiches like the Reuben and the Monte Cristo.

These days, he's better known for competing on TV shows like Chopped Canada and cooking trout five different ways on an episode of Iron Chef Canada. He also works at the SC restaurant at Edmonton's River Cree Resort and Casino. 

Chartrand's new recipe book, Tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine — which means "you're welcome, there's room, come in," he says — is both an exploration of Indigenous cuisine and a collection of personal stories about the 44-year-old's culinary journey and what made him the chef he is today.

He spoke to The Current guest host Kathleen Petty about the importance of food in his life, truth and reconciliation, and what motivated him to share his story.

Here is part of their conversation.

I'm guessing most people, if asked what they would identify as Indigenous food, might say bannock. But it's obviously much more than that. So just help people understand what Indigenous cuisine is.

This is my humble Indigenous opinion so, I mean, it's not going to be the opinion of every Indigenous person in this country.

Bannock is part of our culture, no doubt. It's part of a celebration. But the thing is, that is a small part of the bigger picture. So Indigenous food is about land. It's about place. It's about terroir. It's about the ingredients from where you're from. 

Is that part of what this [book] is about, too, thenjust educating people?

Absolutely. Because, I mean, like, how many people have lived close to an Indian reserve or Indigenous reserve and never got the opportunity to understand what those people are like?

With this book, the idea is literally to give place and an understanding of who we are in a small little bit.

It's literally just my story of what I've experienced with Indigenous food everywhere.

Chartrand says while he sees bannock is an important food in Indigenous culture, Indigenous cuisine is also about the land and where the food comes from. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

Can you describe the role food played when you were a kid?

I was in foster care [from] the age of two to six, and I think I was in about 10 homes. And [in] all those homes … they didn't give me a lot of food, so I didn't eat much.

When I got adopted when I was at the age of seven … they [my parents] really taught me the importance of what food is and, you know, the old story, like eat everything on your plate ... don't waste anything. 

I never got that feeling before. I never sat around a dinner table, you know, with family and so … my parents are the ones that initially started off me understanding the importance of food.

Tell me what you learned from your dad ... because a lot of your meals and your recipes are about locally sourced food. And … you got that, I'm sure, from your dad, in large part. 

Well, it's my dad and my mom, actually.

We lived on an acreage farm. We raised, you know, chickens, geese. We had horses out there. We had everything out there. 

We lived off our acreage, our farm. So then when I started working in restaurants and started hearing this [term] "local, local, local, local," I'm like, I don't get it ... isn't that just a thing?

My dad taught me a lot about outdoor hunting, fishing, understanding the land and place. 

We'd go hiking for three weeks in the mountains, way out there.

We have to just enjoy the land, and that's what my dad taught me ⁠— how to be very strong and ... just look around and breathe the air in.

My world of … writing this book or doing documentaries is to empower young people — and Indigenous or non[-Indigenous].- Shane Chartrand, chef

I know you know that there's all this discussion, especially in this political season, about reconciliation. But does what you do ... help inform that? 

My world is about truth, not reconciliation. Just truth. You know, I just know that my world of … writing this book or doing documentaries is to empower young people — and Indigenous or non[-Indigenous].

I want to be uplifting to young Indigenous … girls and boys because they can feel like: You know what? I come from [a] reserve, I got nothing, my parents can't afford anything, I'll never get there. I'll never be him.

Yes, you can be. You just got to keep saying yes and just figure it out —  you'll get there. I come from nowhere. So I mean, when it comes to truth and reconciliation, the only thing I'm trying to do is just be me and trying to uplift … anyone who's inspired.

Shane, I'd like to end on the food…. This is a cookbook and there are lots of recipes in there. And I have to say, as, you know, someone who makes, oh, I don't know, macaroni and cheese maybe too often, some of those recipes are a bit daunting. 

The tricky thing about this cookbook is there's very simple, simple, simple recipes. Really easy ones. Then there [are] recipes that you might not get the ingredients for.

Because they need to be locally sourced or you need to hunt or know a hunter, for example.

Exactly. Like, I got moose roast in there…. but the reason I put that in the book is because it's part of my life.

You don't ever need to follow the recipe. You can just get inspired by that recipe. If that recipe inspires you to do whatever you want to do, go ahead, have fun. Take a few of the things I wrote and make your own. That's the whole fun part about cooking.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Idella Sturino. Q&A edited for length and clarity.