Cook reclaims her roots en route to curating Indigenous Feast at West Van's Harmony Arts Festival

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      Inez Cook, cofounder of Salmon n’ Bannock, opened the city’s only First Nations restaurant just in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

      Although she’s a member of the Bella Coola–based Nuxalk, it wasn’t until she had travelled much of the globe that she became connected with the food of her culture.

      That’s because she was part of the Sixties Scoop. She was one of thousands of Indigenous children taken away from their families and adopted into mostly non-Indigenous families throughout Canada and the U.S.

      Cook, whose culinary team will be preparing an Aboriginal feast at this year’s Harmony Arts Festival in West Vancouver, shares during a phone interview with the Georgia Straight that she was 12 months old when she was removed from her family. After being placed in a home in Vancouver, she never again met her birth parents.

      Although she didn’t grow up eating traditional Indigenous foods, her diet consisted of wholesome, home-cooked meals that wouldn’t be considered “typical” North American dishes either.

      “My mom’s family is Dutch-Russian Mennonite—I grew up with Mennonite cooking, which is amazing—and my dad’s family were ranchers from Manitoba,” she says. “He was a hunter and went fishing as well.

      “We lived in the Northwest Territories for a period of time. He would bring home deer. At the time, I thought it was Bambie—there was no way I was going to eat that,” she adds with a laugh.

      Nowadays, deer and other big game are served at her West Broadway restaurant. As an adult, Cook turned to food as a way of experiencing other cultures wherever she travelled and lived, including the Middle East, Africa, England, and other parts of Canada.

      For a time, she envisioned opening up a Tunisian restaurant with her then husband, who was from that country, but those plans fell through along with her marriage. It was a trip to the Okanagan in 2009 that sparked the idea of getting back to her culinary roots and sharing them with others.

      “I went to Kelowna during the wine festival to cry away my tears over my divorce,” Cook says. “A friend was driving me to the airport and I saw Kekuli Cafe, a Native restaurant. They had bannock, and I had to stop. That was what inspired me to start a First Nations restaurant in Vancouver.”

      She teamed up with French-born Remi Caudron—a dear friend and fellow flight attendant, a part-time job they both still maintain—to open Salmon n’ Bannock the following year. (He’s soon moving on from the restaurant; she’s in the process of buying him out.)

      All of its staff is Indigenous and include members of the Cowichan, Haida Gwaii, Lil’wat, Musqueam, Nuxalk, Tla’amin, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

      Cook describes Indigenous cuisine as “food from the land”, and the restaurant showcases seasonal, local ingredients through a modern lens. Its menu features elk, bison, deer, wild boar, and other game; cured, barbecued, and candied salmon and other fish; cedar jelly and sage-infused blueberry preserves; and more. Then there are bannock burgers and tacos.

      Bannock is just one traditional dish that will appear on a special menu Cook is curating for the Harmony Arts Festival’s Indigenous Feast. It’s a first for the annual event, which is taking place on traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish People. (The festival will mount other culinary offerings as well, including Night on the Pier; Mr. Bannock, the region’s only Indigenous food truck, will also be on-site.)

      One of the items Cook is especially excited about consists of clams that are steamed in bentwood boxes. The traditional cedar boxes are being carved exclusively for the meal by artist Jamie Michaels.

      “You put stones onto a grill to get them piping hot, put them in the box, add fresh herbs and water, then add them clams, close the box, and steam them,” Cook explains.

      Oolichans in a blanket is another. Although the small, oily smelt used to appear in abundance when spawning in B.C.’s Fraser and other rivers and streams, they’re much harder to come by now. Cook made a point of getting a special order in for the fest and will wrap the cottonwood-smoked fish in pastry.

      Although Cook was hoping to offer salmon over flames right on the beach, current fire bans mean the fish will be barbecue it instead. Also on the menu are bison ribs with sage-infused blueberries, corn on the cob, and three-sisters salad—the three sisters being corn, beans, and wild rice, in honour of First Nations in the eastern part of the country, she says.

      The Indigenous Feast takes place on Tuesday (August 7) at the Harmony Arts Festival. The festival runs from August 3 to 12 in West Vancouver along the waterfront on Argyle Avenue from 14th to 16th Street. For more information, visit the website.