How Indigenous chefs are looking to traditions to heal
Mohkínstsis (Calgary) and Amiskwaciy Waskahikan (Edmonton) were once gathering places. Wild saskatoons grew, buffalo roamed, and Mother Nature gave birth to rich traditions passed down for centuries – traditions connecting the land to people and people to each other. In Alberta, sun-drying meat like pemmican (dried meat and berries pounded together) was ideal for journeys, vegetables and medicinal herbs flourished, and buffalo gave food, clothing, and tools. Food was cherished and respected. Wasting nothing was the way of life.
But European settlement devastated First Nations’ traditions. Canned foods and rationing replaced the abundance of the grasslands. The territory Indigenous peoples roamed and reaped from for centuries was taken and abused. The path forward was stricken with trauma.
For many Indigenous chefs, food has become a medicine. The lack of Indigenous representation in the culinary world has become an opportunity to pursue a future of their own creation, showcase traditions, and reconnect to some of what’s been lost. In the spirit of preserving elder knowledge, Chef David Wolfman of the Xaxali’p First Nation embraces sharing and teaching. As a Culinary Arts professor and the star of “Cooking with the Wolfman,” he created a niche he calls “Indigenous Fusion” where he uses Mother Nature’s offerings and his creativity to shape the way we understand Canadian food. The process of healing is beginning – for many Indigenous chefs – by turning back to Mother Nature.
For Chef Scott Iserhoff of Pei Pei Chei Ow (pe-pe-s-chew), watching wild meat smoke over the fire and hearing his family’s stories was normal, but as he grew, Iserhoff pushed his culture aside. It wasn’t until culinary school that something clicked. He was tired of cooking foods from other places and found himself calling home to ask about jam and bannock. Memories of picking berries and honouring the land flooded back. What was once ordinary became extraordinarily special.
Because of his childhood curiosity, Iserhoff’s Moshom (grandfather) nicknamed him Pei Pei Chei Ow, the Omushkegowin word for the robin. Iserhoff laughs about how much it annoyed his Moshom how much he talked, but it’s his curiosity that’s reacquainted him with the past. Paying tribute to his Attawapiskat roots, Iserhoff, along with his wife Svitlana Kravchuk, cater events in the spirit of mino pimatisiwin: embracing “the good life.” Using local wild meats and traditional and post-colonial ingredients is part of this process.
“I feel a responsibility to showcase Indigenous food … and to decolonize the space that I’m cooking in,” Iserhoff says about why he chose to pursue catering. “I want it to be a stepping-stone for other Indigenous people.”
As well as catering events around Edmonton, Pei Pei Chei Ow offers cooking classes. The result of oral storytelling, outdoor cooking, and local ingredients, is an empowering and artistic menu. Dishes like “Three Sisters Salad” inspired by culinary traditions, letting wild mushroom, charred onion, ricotta, and dandelion bannock bites tell his story.
For Chef Leslie Bull of the Plains Cree Nation, Kokom’s Bannock Kitchen is the realization of a multi-generational legacy – a dream to share the customs of her grandparents and have her dream live on through her children.
Bull’s journey to where she is today was one of learning and sharing as much as it was of trauma and loss. Her mother is a residential school survivor; she started a family soon after leaving the school and did the best she could to pass knowledge onto her children. This meant relearning lost Plains Cree culture while raising her children.
"We are reaching different cultures and it’s great to see how much support we get."
For Bull, making bannock is a way of reimagining a hurtful past. In her 30s, she wanted to learn to make bannock, which brought her back to her Kokom’s kitchen. Kokom means “your grandmother” in Plains Cree, and the love she felt in her Kokom’s kitchen fit the business culture she wanted to create.
“How I cook for my grandbabies is how I cook for other people,” Bull says. “It’s all about the energy you put out there. Your energy.”
You’ll find Kokom’s Bannock Kitchen at Fresh and Local Market and Kitchens, where Bull offers four fry bread and bannock flavours: traditional, savoury cheese, mixed berry, and cinnamon sugar. She also offers homemade wild berry sauce – delicious on ice cream or sweet bannock – stews, salads, wild berry punch, bannock tacos, and her best-selling bannock burgers, seasoned with a sweet juniper berry spice.
In the summer of 2010, Whitefish Lake First Nation’s Chef Curtis Cardinal of Tee Pee Treats began selling his bannock at Alberta powwows. At these powwows, Cardinal remembers teepees set up as mini storefronts where First Nations gatherers would sell Indigenous foods. It’s a memory that inspired him to start his own culinary business with a name he hopes brings “strength, meaning, and hope to First Nations.”
But Cardinal’s journey to learning about Indigenous food traditions and sharing them with his customers was also a process toward addiction recovery. Like so many other First Nations individuals suffering from addiction, reviving traditions has helped them find their “true spirit.” In 2019, he became a licensed caterer after helping his friend get his food truck, Native Delights, started in Edmonton. The passion to create and to share gets him up each morning and on his way to the kitchen he rents at St. Faith’s Anglican Church in Edmonton.
Arrive hungry to try Cardinal’s “contemporary Indigenous food” creations, like bison bannock burgers, bison stew, and bannock donair. Keep an eye on social media for the release date of his bannock fries, a potato-bannock fusion infused with cheddar, meat, or fruit – something customers are already eagerly asking about. Consistent, but ever the creative, Cardinal hopes that Tee Pee Treats’ popularity and customer loyalty will help him one day expand into an experiential dining experience in a teepee, franchise his business, and branch out into value-added products, like jams.
To Cardinal, seeing so many excited customers flooding to his take-out window has been “amazing.” “It gives hope to our First Nations people who want to start a business. We are reaching different cultures and it’s great to see how much support we get.”
For Chef Shantel Tallow of Aahksoyo’p Indigenous Comfort Food (ahk-see-ope) –LUXLife’s Best Specialty Catering Company (2019), in-house caterer for the City of Calgary, and indigenous advisor to the University of Calgary – her dream of sharing Blackfoot traditions transformed her into a sought-after chef and the first and only Indigenous caterer in Calgary.
After sundances, when Blackfoot communities gather for a meal, the tipi head yells “Aahksoyo’p” to end fasting, a story that empowered Tallow to share Blackfoot traditions and create a legacy. Even though there are challenges to owning her business, Tallow says it’s been a chance to learn how to move forward. She offers comfort foods, journey food like pemmican, and bannock, fry bread, and berry soup as part of her catering service. She also hosts “Bannock in a Panic” cooking classes, and her second Aahksoyo’p Nootski cookbook is coming out soon.
“I’m learning about my family and where we came from,” she says. “Turning back time means you can turn back to Mother Nature.” After 17 years away, moving back to the Blood Reserve has been part of her cultural recalibration. As an advisor to the Waterton Indigenous Tourism Centre, she’s helping them build a smokehouse and kitchen just in time for the reintroduction of buffalo to Waterton.
“I assumed I’d always be in the kitchen,” she says. “I didn’t know I needed to come home to reconnect,” she says.