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The Canadian Chef Putting Indigenous Food on the Menu

The Canadian Chef Putting Indigenous Food on the Menu
Sam Peet © Culture Trip
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, Christa Bruneau-Guenther’s restaurant, Feast, is challenging the under-representation of indigenous cuisine in Canada and providing life-changing jobs for members of her community.

Christa Bruneau-Guenther had an unconventional route into the restaurant business. “I grew up in the North End, the toughest part of Winnipeg,” she says. “I grew up in poverty, around lots of addiction and family brokenness. I faced a lot of barriers, but just kept pushing through, kept persevering.”

Few restaurants specialize in indigenous food

Bruneau-Guenther is a member of the Peguis First Nation, one of more than 630 First Nations communities in Canada and the largest in Manitoba, with more than 10,000 members. In total, almost 1.7 million Canadians have indigenous heritage, roughly 5% of the population. They continue to endure severe social, economic and cultural disadvantages, the result of entrenched discrimination, displacement and other human-rights violations, not least the impact of residential schools, something documented in Winnipeg’s excellent Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Christa Bruneau-Guenther. Courtesy of Feast

Between 1884 and 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit (the indigenous peoples of the Arctic) and Métis (who have indigenous-European ancestry and a distinct culture) children were taken from their families and sent to state-run residential schools. This led to the deaths of more than 3,000 children, widespread neglect, abuse and mistreatment, and – in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 2008 to investigate the history and legacy of residential schools – a “cultural genocide”.

Among the many complex and enduring impacts is the virtual absence of indigenous cuisine from Canadian menus. Bruneau-Guenther’s restaurant, Feast, which opened in Winnipeg’s West End in December 2016, is one of only a handful in the country specializing in indigenous food.

Bison tipi taco. Courtesy of Feast

It quickly became a fixture of the city’s flourishing culinary scene. More indigenous people live in Winnipeg than in any other Canadian city – almost 93,000 out of a total population of 705,000 – and Feast filled a gap in the market. The menu features “modern dishes rooted in First Nations foods”: pizzas made with bannock, a baked or fried bread; sliders made with pickerel, a type of pike; and bison stew, tacos and burgers.

“There was a transformation among us”

Bruneau-Guenther first became interested in food during the 12 years she ran a daycare for inner-city, predominantly First Nations children. “A lot of them had fetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD, severe emotional-behavioral problems or been through trauma,” she says. “I developed a holistic program and introduced traditional arts and practices but quickly realized the children couldn’t focus.”

Bison burger. Courtesy of Feast

The children tended to have unhealthy diets, and some weren’t given breakfast before coming to the daycare, so Bruneau-Guenther started to provide nutritious meals and sent them home with healthy recipes for their parents. “Within a couple of weeks, there was a transformation – the children were able to learn and focus,” she says. “That’s when my passion for food really started.”

Around this time the government published Canada’s Food Guide for First Nations, Métis and Inuit People, which was designed to promote healthy eating. “I got my hands on it and realized I didn’t know squat about traditional food: I didn’t grow up eating much of it, beside the odd bit of deer, moose or pickerel we caught ourselves,” says Bruneau-Guenther. She subsequently visited every library in Winnipeg but couldn’t find a single book on indigenous food. “To this day, there’s only a handful of cookbooks that promote our traditional foods and ingredients,” she says.

Spring bison stew. Courtesy of Feast

Bruneau-Guenther started researching indigenous cuisine, speaking with elders, meeting with community organizations and developing recipes for the daycare’s cookery programs. “Many of the children had never tried a squash before, but once we introduced them, they wanted to eat [it],” she says. “My staff were First Nations and there was a transformation among us, too, a sense of pride, self-discovery and healing through connecting with traditional foods and culture.”

After selling her daycare business, Bruneau-Guenther was approached by a local church and asked to take over a former restaurant and community space that had sat vacant for several years. Her initial response? “Absolutely not. I’d never run a restaurant before, never gone to culinary school, never taken a cooking class,” she says. “But at that time, there was only a handful of restaurants in the whole country that promoted indigenous foods, culture and people. I thought, ‘This is the land of the First Nations people and there’s only four or five restaurants?’” Bruneau-Guenther realized she had an obligation and responsibility to her community: “So I took the leap and Feast was born.”

“It’s more than a job; it’s who I am”

From the outset, Bruneau-Guenther was determined to provide job opportunities for members of the community who faced barriers to employment. “I’m a community-driven person more than a culinary-driven person,” she explains. “Ninety-eight percent of my staff are indigenous First Nations and Métis people. Some of them had never cooked a day in their lives, and now they’re cooking for hundreds of people.”

Christa Bruneau-Guenther. Courtesy of Feast

One person who has benefited from this is Steve Spence. By his own admission, Feast’s lead cook, a member of the Peguis First Nation, has had a “colorful past” that involved selling drugs. “Then my daughter committed suicide and my world totally flipped upside down,” he says. “I was under the influence of alcohol for over a year before ending up in jail. It was then I decided I’d had enough.”

After a year behind bars, Spence was released, checked into an alcohol treatment center and started to build a better life. “I always had that passion for food and decided to cook,” he says. “I cooked in a few places, but it wasn’t a good fit. I’m indigenous and I felt I had the right skills but not the right skin. Then I heard about Feast. I’ve been working here for eight months and love it… It’s more than a job; it’s who I am.”

Spence works alongside chef Jim Johanson, who has Cree heritage and 40 years’ experience in the restaurant industry. “I was lucky: I went to school, got my Red Seal [chef qualification] and traveled across Canada and the US,” says Johanson. “Now I’m lucky enough to teach people and show them if you get up every day, wash your face and go to work, you can have some stuff.”

Inspiring the next generation

As well as the restaurant, Bruneau-Guenther runs a catering business, does outreach work with schools and universities, and is writing a cookbook. “I want to share recipes, I want people to start cooking our foods at home, I want our people to start getting healthier – diabetes is an epidemic, and lack of access to healthy foods in our northern communities is a [serious problem],” she says.

There are tentative signs that interest in and opportunities for indigenous restaurants are starting to grow in Canada, with chefs like Rich Francis – who is Gwich’in-Haudenosaunee and came third in Top Chef Canada in 2014 – also making names for themselves. Bruneau-Guenther, who is increasingly gaining a national reputation, is keen to inspire the next generation.

“There’s now a strong indigenous culinary program in Manitoba, and two students are doing their apprenticeship with Feast,” she says. “I very rarely if ever see an indigenous person working as a server or a chef, so I really connect with this program. Maybe one or two students will open their own restaurants one day. It seems such an unattainable thing, but if I could grow up in the North End in poverty and still own a restaurant, they can, too.”

Shafik’s trip was provided by Travel Manitoba. He stayed at Inn at the Forks.