Aboriginal cuisine heats up

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      It will be the "world's biggest potlatch". That's how Tewanee Joseph, CEO of the Four Host First Nations Society, describes the 2010 Aboriginal Pavilion, which will showcase First Nations, Inuit, and Métis culture during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

      The 8,000-square-foot venue, to be located on the Queen Elizabeth Theatre plaza, is intended to provide visible evidence that the International Olympic Committee is working with indigenous peoples as full partners in an Olympic and Paralympic Games. But Vancouver-area foodies have another reason to anticipate its opening next February: the chance to sample aboriginal foods.

      When Dolly Watts closed her highly acclaimed Liliget Feast House, located on Davie Street, in 2006, Vancouver lost its only restaurant dedicated to First Nations cuisine. Other than at Darryl's Coffee and Native Art Shop (945 Davie Street), which frequently serves oven-baked bannock, finding traditional West Coast fare amid the city's groaning board of culinary offerings is next to impossible.

      Curtis Blaney, a member of the Homalco First Nation near Campbell River, is one of a handful of up-and-coming First Nations chefs who may well make aboriginal cuisine the next big thing on the local culinary scene.

      "Amazing" is how he describes Vancouver Community College's new aboriginal culinary arts program. "And it will get even better when we take over Four Corners [one of VCC's restaurants] during the summer."

      Interviewed at VCC, culinary arts department head John-Carlo Felicella says the restaurant experience will provide valuable training for the students, who will be assisting with food service at the 2010 Aboriginal Pavilion.

      Up in Whistler, another such partnership has already proven successful. When the Squamish Lil'Wat Cultural Centre (4584 Blackcomb Way) opened last June, the Four Seasons Resort Whistler was brought onboard to cater the centre's events. The hotel's executive chef, Scott Dolbee, got together with renowned First Nations chef Andrew George Jr. to develop a menu inspired by traditional aboriginal fare. (George once owned and ran Vancouver's Toody Ni Restaurant and Catering Company; he also coauthored FEAST! Canadian Native Cuisine for All Seasons, and was a member of the Native Canadian Haute Cuisine Team at the 1992 International Culinary Olympics in Germany.) The centre's café offers a variation of the catering menu—smoked salmon on bannock, a turkey club with chokecherry jelly, and salmon chowder, for example.

      "We've had great response," says Albert Kirby, who was seconded from the Four Seasons to act as café manager. So much so that the hotel's Fifty Two 80 Bistro frequently adds First Nations–inspired dishes to its own menu.

      According to George, without its partnership with the Four Seasons, the centre's food program could have faced some serious hurdles. George knows all about the hardships of opening and operating a successful restaurant. In fact, he seriously considered taking over the Liliget Feast House, but was dissuaded when he learned that the lease was up and the landlord was selling the property to a developer.

      "It's expensive to open any restaurant," George says. "It's not all about cooking. There's administration and finances to consider."

      Many First Nations people have unique challenges in starting such an enterprise. Since most who live on reserves don't own their own homes, they lack the collateral to borrow funds to start a business. "As it was originally set up, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada was only concerned with health, housing, and education," George says. "There's nothing there about setting up a business."

      George adds that First Nations people "tend to have a low high-school graduation rate". When students do make it to the postsecondary level, they migrate toward professions and generally ignore trades such as the culinary arts.

      George recently created a training and development program in partnership with the Kla-how-eya Aboriginal Centre of the Surrey Aboriginal Cultural Society that offers disadvantaged youth the opportunity to upgrade their education and obtain hands-on cooking experience. The 16-week program helps them enter culinary-training programs like the one at VCC and succeed in the food-services industry. Plans are afoot to open a related culinary school in Abbotsford, under the direction of Kla-how-eya chef instructor Nathan Hyam.

      As for the VCC program, Felicella says it was initiated last September as a result of student demand. "Students were asking specifically for an aboriginal focus—cuisine, culture, all of that," he says. "Response to what we're offering [the chance to learn both western and traditional aboriginal cooking techniques] has been overwhelming. In fact, we have a waiting list for the next intake."

      Ben Genaille, who helped get the VCC program off the ground, believes that in the near future Vancouver will once again have access to high-quality First Nations cuisine. "There are a few keeners in the program who are talking about opening their own restaurant," he says in a phone interview from Terrace, where he's now a chef instructor at Northwest Community College. In the meantime, the 2010 Aboriginal Pavilion's culinary offerings will fill the gap. "This is really an exciting time to be an aboriginal chef," Genaille says.



      Sharon Bond

      Jun 26, 2009 at 10:08pm

      How can I contact Chef Andrew George Jr.?? Thank you.

      Nathan Thomas

      Dec 18, 2009 at 2:07pm

      This program sounds real interesting and i would like more imformation on the program. i am of aboriginal descent and i recently graduated from the culinary arts program at Red River College, i one day would love to have the oppurtunity to open my own restaurant are something similar to the program you have there to help the young aboriginal youth of Winnipeg.

      falyn a

      Feb 5, 2010 at 2:15pm

      sweetness im soo there on the next iron chef is falyn lol hehe i have big dreams and an aboriginal chef is one i love cooking and i hope ill be one whats the best school to go to? and what do i need to get there? jordee3@gmail.com is my email

      Sharon Bond

      Feb 11, 2010 at 7:08pm

      Hi there! I am happy to say, that I have opened a First Nations Cafe in Westbank BC!! We have been open for 4months now, and we make bannock! Indian Tacos, Grilled Salmon, Buffalo, Venison Stews, homestyle cooking, specials, etc....I am located in Westbank BC, and some of Chef Andrew George Jr have inspired me as well as Dolly Watts. I could not wait for cooking school, but utilized my love for cooking skills and baking skills and the drive to open a native cafe! Hope to see you there someday. Kutxhem, thank you, limtlimpt