When Edmonton-based Cree chef Shane M. Chartrand is asked what “progressive Indigenous cuisine” means to him—the phrase being the subtitle for his new cookbook, tawâw—he says it’s food that’s constantly evolving. Tawâw isn’t intended to be a definitive representation of First Nations fare, neither a modern spin on it nor a historical re-creation of it. But he does hope that the book will help people better understand his culture.
“Progressive just means ever-changing,” Chartrand tells the Straight. “This is my world of Indigenous food, how my dad raised me, how my mom raised me.
“Indigenous food is not celebrated at all,” he adds. “French, Mediterranean Greek, Japanese food… It’s all celebrated, but Indigenous food isn’t. It’s insane. I’d like people to pay a little bit more attention.”
Tawâw (pronounced “ta WOW”) in Cree means "Come in, you're welcome, there's room.” The book, Chartrand’s first, written with Jennifer Cockrall-King, features 75 recipes alongside stories from throughout his life.
One of thousands of children across Canada who were taken from their families at an early age as part of the Sixties Scoop, Chartrand was put in foster care before the age of two. He lived in several different places before arriving at the loving home of Belinda and Dennis Chartrand, on an acreage midway between Calgary and Edmonton, when he was seven. Belinda is of Irish and Mi’kmaw descent, Dennis is Cree; they adopted him, and for the first time, he found himself not feeling hungry all the time. He remembers the family’s vegetable garden and his mom’s hearty stews and delicious pickles; he went hunting with his dad, who loved eating moose meat.
It wasn’t until Chartrand was an adult that he discovered that he was Plains Cree from Enoch Nation. He never met his birth parents.
Chartrand was about 14 when he got his first restaurant job, as a dishwasher at a truck stop. From there, he worked at chain restaurants before doing a year of culinary school. Then life got in the way and he had to go back to work full-time. After taking on various restaurant roles, he returned to culinary school and graduated in 2006.
He has since competed on Chopped Canada and Iron Chef Canada, among other TV shows, and is the executive chef of SC, an acclaimed restaurant at River Cree Resort & Casino in Enoch, just outside of Edmonton. There, he uses Indigenous ingredients and cooking techniques, but he also draws on European and Asian influences.
That intermingling of culinary worlds is evident in tawâw. Recipes include white bean dip and garlic nettle dip; chilled mussels with stiff cream and spruce tips; bittersweet soapberry whip on fresh berries; turkey neck soup; and deep-fried bannock with Saskatoon berries and birch syrup.
Then there’s War Paint, his signature dish with quail legs and wheat berries cooked in pheasant broth. Red-pepper sauce is applied to the plate as a striking hand print.
While raising the profile of Indigenous culture and cuisine through his work, Chartrand also wants to improve the quality of food so many Indigenous people are accustomed to as a result of colonization.
“I’m not doing this for fame,” says Chartrand, who collaborated at a World Chef Exchange dinner at Salmon n’ Bannock as part of Dine Out Vancouver Festival 2020. “It’s to make a message, and that’s for people to understand Indigenous food. Even Indigenous people don’t know Indigenous food. We need to make good, wholesome food. I want it to be healthy.”