Pilot program teaches aboriginal culinary arts
Smoked-salmon mousse, spicy elk salad wraps, and venison on bannock were among the items on the menu when chef Andrew George Jr.’s inaugural Tsleil-Waututh culinary-arts class recently marked the completion of its course with a luncheon.
As part of the pilot version of the Professional Cook Level 1 training program, 10 students, five of whom are from the Tsleil-Waututh community, were trained in areas such as food preparation, food safety, and menu development. George, a chef with over 20 years of experience, explained that the course also focused on the traditional significance of land and food.
“First Nations and aboriginal people…have a very strong connection to the land, they have a very strong desire to protect the land, but also to move forward in a modern form [with] how we practise our traditions, and that includes our food, because food is a very integral part of our feast halls, our potlatch halls,” he told the Georgia Straight in an interview following the luncheon at the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Community Centre in North Vancouver.
As part of the 28-week program based on Industry Training Authority standards, the students learned standard culinary terminology and used traditional techniques such as brining, smoking, and making stocks.
“Most of our foods were medicinal,” George explained. “Let’s take elk stock—it was used for medicine if somebody had a bad flu, because of the marrow and all the stuff in that. In a modern form, it’s called a stock…but this is how we did it traditionally.”
Eugene Crain, a Cree student from Saskatchewan, said these traditional cooking methods prompted many “aha moments” for him throughout the course.
“How come I’m not doing this at home—how come I’m not brining, or how come I’m not making stocks, simple stocks that you can do yourself?” he said. “We live in such a convenient food society, and you know, fast food is everywhere. And I thought, what better than to cook for yourself, or cook for people.”
George explained that another focus of the pilot program was the natural ingredients that make up aboriginal cuisine.
“Because of the cost of food today, a lot of the poorer families can’t afford healthy fresh fruit or vegetables…what they can afford is processed foods, and that’s sad,” he said, noting that the course also taught students how to shop for and cook with local, fresh ingredients.
“That’s how we did things, and I think if we go back to that, our people will be a lot healthier,” he added, noting the prevalence of health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease among First Nations people.
The inclusion of elk on the luncheon menu was particularly significant for the Tsleil-Waututh community. The nation recently harvested its first elk in decades, following the reintroduction of the species to the Indian River Watershed in 2006.
“It’s been over 100 years since any Tsleil-Waututh member has been able to harvest wild game from our natural resources, so it’s very, very significant,” Tsleil-Waututh councillor Carleen Thomas said in an interview.
The program is also intended to provide the initial training required for those interested in pursuing their Red Seal certification to become professional cooks—a field in which the band sees potential employment opportunities for its members.
“We do have some challenges with being under-employed and in some areas underskilled,” said Michelle George, manager of employment and training for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
“A lot of our young people are kind of falling through the cracks in the public-school system, and so when we take opportunities to do community programming like this…then we can support them to gain the skills to be successful.”
She said the band plans to continue providing the Level 1 class, as well as to expand to offer a Level 2 program. She noted they are in the process of forming a partnership with Vancouver Community College and are seeking funding partners for the classes.
According to chef George, a wave of retirements among Vancouver chefs is expected over the coming years.
“The baby boomers are retiring…we’re talking within the next 10 to 15 years,” he said. “So I think it’s a good opportunity for aboriginals to get into this field, because we’re the largest, fastest-growing population in Canada under 25.
“I think if we do that right and point them in the right direction, give them the proper education, I think it’s a win-win for everybody….At the end of the day, it just makes them feel good about who they are, and to me that’s what this is all about.”
Applications and further information on the program can be accessed via the Aboriginal Skills Group website.