Vancouver's only Indigenous brunch now available downtown, with bannock, bison, boar, and more

BigHeart Bannock Cultural Café, headed by Lauraleigh Paul Yuxweluputun’aat, is back, operating out of Skwachàys Lodge

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      Here in Vancouver, we count ourselves as fortunate to have so many diverse dining options to choose from, whether it’s Middle Eastern, French, Chinese, or Vietnamese. Yet despite having access to different types of cuisine from all over the world, many people are not all that familiar with Indigenous food.

      Lauraleigh Paul Yuxweluputun’aat is among a growing legion of Indigenous chefs helping change that.

      Paul, who’s a member of the Coast Salish, Interior Salish, and Carrier nations, is the founder of BigHeart Bannock Cultural Café.

      Vancouverites may recall that her Indigenous restaurant, which got started about a year ago, was located on Commercial Drive. The space itself, unfortunately, turned out to be a disaster, with mouldy ceiling tiles, she says. The whole venture was put on hold for several months as she couldn’t get out of her lease.

      Now, BigHeart Bannock is back, operating out of Skwachàys Lodge Aboriginal Hotel and Gallery (31 West Pender Street). You walk through the lodge’s art gallery, which is filled with exquisite Indigenous artwork and jewellery, to get to the café.

      There, BigHeart Bannock is serving Indigenous weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

      There’s baked bannock French toast, served with red huckleberries and salmonberries, summerland-berry syrup, and candy hemlock. Baked or fried bannock (which has been said to bring on "bannockgasms") comes with a choice of house-made jam, such as sweetgrass strawberry, sage-smoked woodland blueberry, and Salish herbal jam (with raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, rosehips, mint, licorice root, hibiscus flowers, and hawthorn berries). There’s bison sausage hash, wild boar sausage patty with elderberry-barbecue aioli, and much more.

      People have been said to have "bannockgasms" upon trying BigHeart Bannock's freshly baked or fried bread.
      Gail Johnson.

      Paul, whose father is renowned artist Paul Yuxweluputun, has teamed up with co-chef Larissa Grieves, who’s of is Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, Metis, and Blackfoot descent.

      Passionate about Indigenous food and Indigenous-food sovereignty, the duo's mission at the café is twofold. Firstly, the two want to revive the palate for wild foods in Indigenous urban settings. As much as they can, they incorporate those beloved ingredients in their fare. Think soapberries, hibiscus flowers, hemlock and spruce tips, burdock, dandelion, hawthorn berries, alfalfa nettles, licorice root, seaweed, and so much more. (Then there are foods such as moose meat, which they generally can’t serve, unless they make use of the Indian Act and make a “trade” with Indigenous people in possession of a status card.)

      “Our mandate is to revive the palate for wild foods in indigenous urbanized settings,” Paul says in an interview at the café. “Our urbanized Indigenous people are losing their palate, and their resilience, I believe, is affected by that. Food has maintained the resilience of our people.

      “It’s so frustrating for me not to be able to set the table with all the love I have,” adds Paul. “We have to keep asserting what we do because these foods need to be on the forefront; indigenous people need to have access to these in a marketable sense. It’s a labour of love; we love being in those mountains and on that forest floor, and we love being with the land and sea. We love enjoying the fruits of our labour and sharing the fruits of our labour.”

      Paul and Grieves also wish to educate and inform those whom they call Canadian allies about the bounty of Mother Earth, all in hopes of using food and the sharing of Indigenous flavours and traditions as a way of joining arms.

      “What we’re bringing forward is something so old – so, so old; this is archaic knowledge for our people – but it’s new in downtown Vancouver,” Paul says. “My priority has been to nourish my people, to remind my people that this is the way we get by and feel complete, but we also want to share with our Canadian allies and respected ones, to be able to understand this land together, advocate for Mother Earth, and move forward together.”

      BigHeart Bannock Cultural Cafe founder Lauraleigh Paul Yuxweluputun’aat (left) and co-chef Larissa Grieves serve Indigenous fare such as Salish jam, hemlock tips, and dandelion greens.
      Gail Johnson.

      Another prized Indigenous ingredient is oolichan. (BigHeart Bannock serves smoked-oolichan hash, with sunny-side egg, savoury hash, and bannock toast with saskatoon or elderberry jam). Oolichan grease, which Paul cooks with when she is able to access it, is also cherished. “We have a trading grease trail, which is historic,” Paul says. “Making the grease is a time-intensive process, but the grease is nutritious, rich, delicious, high in omegas. Indigenous tradespeople who do this kind of work are fewer and far between, and resources are dwindling in some areas.”

      BigHeart Bannock serves teas by Raven and Hummingbird Tea Co. The local Indigenous company is run by T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss and her daughter, Senaqwila Wyss. The restaurant's coffee is from Spirit Bear Coffee Company.

      Paul, who’s a single mom of two boys, recently made a statement for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She’s working out of pocket to keep her café running and hopes to be able to extend its hours to offer lunch and dinner. BigHeart Bannock offers catering services and is about to launch a cultural open-mic night on Sundays, for artists, musicians, storytellers, and singers.

      Paul and Grieves worked with Inez Cook’s Salmon n’ Bannock at the inaugural Indigenous Feast at this year's Harmony Arts Festival (August 7). The menu included oolichan in a blanket, bison ribs with sage-infused blueberries, barbecued salmon, three sisters salad (corn, beans, and squash), bannock, grilled corn, and more.

      They’re among First Nations chefs right across Canada who are working to bring their food to the forefront.

      Others include Victoria-based Art Napoleon, who’s of Cree and Zane Daa descent and who’s on the TV show Moosemeat and Marmalade, and Rich Francis, who’s from Ontario’s Six Nations and who was the first Indigenous chef to compete on Top Chef Canada.