With the largest Indigenous population in Canada, it’s no surprise that Winnipeg has become an epicentre for both the re-emergence of Indigenous cuisine and the exploration of contemporary Indigenous cuisine.
One of the first to put the city on the map for this is, without a doubt, Christa Bruneau-Guenther.
After opening her popular restaurant Feast Bistro in 2016, the Métis-French chef and restaurateur garnered much deserved recognition for both her knack for comfort food and the community-minded nature of her business.
As a standing judge on Wall of Chefs and guest on Top Chef Canada, Ms. Bruneau-Guenther has helped direct attention to both her hometown of Winnipeg and the food culture she grew up with.
Now, Winnipeg has more Indigenous-owned-and-operated food businesses than any other city in the country. From local spots such as Shelly’s Indigenous Bistro to Bistro on Notre Dame, one could spend a whole weekend exploring Indigenous food offerings in the Manitoba capital.
On the cusp of the city’s French quarter, Promenade Brasserie is one of the latest Indigenous culinary concepts that has folks abuzz. Long-time hospitality professional Jay Lekopoy took ownership of the restaurant – a former French-Canadian comfort food spot – earlier this year.
Drawing inspiration from his Métis-French family roots, Mr. Lekopoy has created a menu that leans on Manitoba ingredients such as bison, pickerel, wild rice and squash.
“At this point I don’t feel that Indigenous cuisine is well defined, so it feels so exciting to rediscover what our cuisine is,” Mr. Lekopoy says. ”We want to try to capture the feeling you get at a feast after a sweat, where the meal is shared, it’s family style and it’s unrushed.”
A standout dish is the Three Sisters Bowl, which takes its cue from the trifecta of squash, corn and beans. Coupled with wild rice, pickled beets and a bell pepper aioli, it’s innovative while maintaining approachability.
Mr. Lekopoy notes that he is proud to be located in The Forks area of the city, a historic meeting place for many Indigenous groups. It inspires him to create an indelible dining experience.
He sees Promenade as a space to gather and laugh as well as dine. “I think this is at the heart of Indigenous and Métis cuisine. It’s not just about becoming full, it’s about nourishing your body, your spirit and your community.”
Edmonton is another city garnering buzz for its Indigenous culinary offerings. At the forefront of it all is Mushkego Cree chef Scott Jonathan Iserhoff.
His business Pei Pei Chei Ow, which he operates with partner Svitlana Kravchuk, is located inside art gallery and boutique Whiskeyjack Art House. The combination of Mr. Iserhoff’s prepared food and casual comfort food menu with Indigenous art and small-batch wares makes for an immersive cultural experience that extends well beyond a simple meal.
“It’s important to me that when a person dines here, they always have a story to take away. We do dishes out of creativity, of course, but there is always storytelling attached to the dishes we serve,” he says. “Whether it’s a story of elders, parents, we have lived experiences translated to a plate of food.”
While Pei Pei Chei Ow launched during the pandemic as a takeout business, it wasn’t until 2022 that they secured their bricks-and-mortar location. Mr. Iserhoff says it has been a symbiotic relationship for both him and the art gallery.
In terms of packaged food products, Mr. Iserhoff is known for his inventive creations including Three Berry BBQ Sauce, Bog Cranberry Jam and Blueberry and Sage Jam, all of which can be found in the gallery’s boutique. His food menu changes frequently but can include frybread sandwiches, frybread fish tacos and boasts drinks such as iced coffee with sweetgrass syrup and foraged tea blends.
Unpretentious, welcoming and educational, the reputation of Pei Pei Chei Ow has stretched across the country. The chef has been recognized by publications such as Western Living and Edify, and in fall 2022 was recognized with a trailblazer award as part of Air Canada enRoute’s annual Best New Restaurants awards.
“It’s really amazing, I never thought we’d be getting the accolades that we have. For settler organizations like Air Canada enRoute or Edify magazine to be putting in that work, it’s appreciated,” he says.
Mr. Iserhoff acknowledges folks like host Art Napoleon of APTN cooking show Moosemeat & Marmalade for helping generate a wave of Indigenous food discovery, both for burgeoning culinary talent and diners. The chef himself is both happy and honoured to be a part of the growing tidal wave of Indigenous food professionals making an impact on younger generations.
“There was no one to look up to when I was growing up and now that’s really changing.”