Pow wow pivot: How one Indigenous chef found new ways to keep food on the table
The back of chef Shawn Adler's vehicle is carrying about 325 containers of frozen Three Sisters Stew (corns, beans and squash), he's cooked and plated on beds of wild rice pilaf. This load, and the two-hour drive that takes from his home in Eugenia to downtown Toronto, are part of his new normal.
"Two years ago, if you said I'd be packing up all this great food into tinfoil inserts, I would be like, 'You're crazy.' But that's my life now," said Adler.
Adler owns two restaurants: Pow Wow Cafe in Toronto's Kensington Market, and The Flying Chestnut Kitchen in Eugenia. Like many restaurant owners, he's had to close to indoor dining and find new ways to make money — primarily through delivery and takeout.
"Restaurants don't have a bankroll of cash sitting around for a rainy day. If a fridge breaks down," he told Unreserved host Falen Johnson with a laugh, "usually it's a tragedy."
He said he's grateful to the federal government's rent assistance program for business owners. The subsidy, he added, has been an "integral" ingredient in enabling him to pivot his business.
Adler's lost more than just indoor diners. He's also lost out on catering large events. He'd normally cater "all of Toronto's pow wows" at the city's universities and gatherings, plus sell Indian tacos and much more at annual music festivals like Hillside Summer Festival in Guelph, Summerfolk in Owen Sound, Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, and Beau's Oktoberfest in Vankleek Hill.
But now, his Three Sisters Stew and other deliveries are being served up to new clientele — non-profits supporting seniors, people living on the streets, and others who are food insecure.
"It's super rewarding personally," said Adler. "It feels extra good to know that it's going to people who are really in need of a good meal."
Adler changes up the recipes to offer new flavours. This weekend, he said he's doing a "spring-inspired" fried chicken, drizzled with honey, fresh chives and dill. It will be served with wild leeks, wild rice, and a strawberry rhubarb parfait.
Families and foodies line up to pick-up their pre-orders and carry the dishes home or to eat in a nearby park. It's been a great success, he said, but misses his favourite part of cooking: seeing his customers enjoy their meal.
"It's just the look in their eyes of amazement at this delicious, beautiful food," Adler said.
"That's how chefs get paid. A lot of the time, it's not about financial reward. It's about this personal connection to feeding people. It's a really sort of intimate thing that happens when you feed someone, you see the look on their face and in their eyes and the smile that that happens," Adler explained.
"That's what I miss the most."