It was in professional kitchens that Saskatchewan-born Cree-Métis chef Heat Laliberte found his family. Amid the sizzle of the line, he bonded with people drawn to the restaurant industry who, like him, fell in love with the discovery that a career in food and cooking brings. But it was only after the Vancouver-based founder of One Arrow Meats transitioned that he truly felt at home.
Laliberte—whose company specializes in small-batch, naturally smoked artisanal bacon—grew up in Humboldt, his adoptive mom struggling with mental illness, addiction, and poverty. His was a tumultuous childhood, during which he often ran away from home. The fights with his mom and her boyfriends were hard on him and his two siblings; making his early years even more difficult was not feeling aligned with the female gender he was assigned at birth.
“When I was very young, I thought I was born a cisgender boy,” Laliberte tells the Georgia Straight. “When I was about four, I realized I wasn’t. All I knew was I felt really uncomfortable with myself. I had always known I was ‘different’ and struggled with that feeling until I transitioned.
“It was a long journey, very emotionally taxing,” he adds. “But I finally feel like myself.”
Laliberte ended up in Vancouver at age 16 via Aldergrove, where his mom had moved with his brother and sister. Knowing he wanted to live and work in the West End to be part of the LGBTQ community, he applied for a job as a cook at Moxie’s when he was 20. He joined a drag performance troupe using the stage name Heat, fittingly dropping the last three letters of his birth name, Heather.
It was exciting to be among so many queer people, Laliberte says. Not only that, but the local scene and the support it offered instilled in him the strength to take the biggest step of his life.
“I met transgender men in the LGBTQ community, and I realized they were who I wanted to be,” Laliberte says. “If I hadn’t moved to B.C. and had stayed in Saskatchewan, I believe I wouldn’t have had the courage to transition. Vancouver has the resources, and the queer scene was thriving with performers, drag kings and drag queens that pushed the gender boundaries.”
Just married, Laliberte met his wife in the restaurant industry, as well as mentors and even father figures. His résumé includes roles at the Westin Hotel and Blue Water Café.
“I had a sense of belonging within the kitchen,” he says. “It grounded me. I started focusing on being the best cook. You’re constantly learning new things; you’re always being stimulated. There’s the adrenaline rush from restaurant service, doing 400 covers a night: it’s really exhilarating being in an atmosphere where people are relying on each other. You’re one team, and it’s like you’re going into battle. It’s really rewarding.”
After studying in the culinary program at Vancouver Community College, Laliberte worked at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, which had just launched a charcuterie program. His experience there—which included learning how to butcher pigs and make items like sausage and salami—proved to be a turning point. He was excited to come to work every day, won the hotel’s 2016 employee of the year award, and decided to focus on the food that some people say makes everything better: bacon.
To get One Arrow Meats off the ground, Laliberte took the Aboriginal BEST (Business Entrepreneurship Skills Training) Program at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre. He says it gave him confidence to apply to the Vancouver Farmers Market, the only place where his hormone-free, hand-cured bacon is available.
“It was a dream come true to get into the farmers market,” he says. “Being a chef, you appreciate where food comes from. When you go to the farmers market, you see farmers with dirt under nails; you see how hard they work. You know that the artisan food makers there are putting love into it.
“There was a niche market for properly made bacon in unique flavours,” he adds. “I love bacon. It’s like coffee: it perks people up and makes them happy.”
One Arrow Meats produces four kinds of bacon made with premium Fraser Valley pork. Hickory Smoked Maple uses extra-dark maple syrup from Squamish’s Maple Sugar Shack, Black Pepper and Honey is smoked with applewood chips, and Chinese 5 Spice has sweet-and-salty char sui glaze. Salt & Smoke is sugar-free, with aromas of applewood and hickory smoke, made in response to a request from a long-distance runner.
Laliberte, who appears in the Food Stories cookbook, will be making a four-course dinner for the Greasy Spoon Diner series at Save On Meats in September to raise funds for A Better Life Foundation. He’s proud of his Indigenous heritage, which resonates in every aspect of his life.
“I use the term Two Spirit,” he says. “Two Spirit people are highly regarded within their community. Historically, Two Spirit people were highly regarded within their tribe. It’s the colonization that really suppressed and condemned Two Spirit people.
“For One Arrow Meats, the arrow signifies strength and resiliency to overcome tragedy,” Laliberte says. “It also means shoot for the stars.”