B.C. market acquiring a taste for aboriginal cuisine

Caterers helping give traditional native dishes a bigger seat at the mainstream table

Gerry Brandon, director of Friendship Catering Services, says a rising interest in aboriginal heritage and food is lifting sales for the organization | Chung Chow

Aboriginal catering companies are building a niche sector in B.C. by bringing millenniums-old food traditions to a new audience.

Among the region’s handful of aboriginal caterers – who are part of the region’s small but growing aboriginal hospitality industry that includes the boutique hotel Skwachàys Lodge and the restaurant Salmon n’ Bannock – is Cedar Feast House Catering, founded by chef Theresa Contois.

Contois, who is of Anishinaabe and Lakota origin, started the company in 2012 when she realized the market potential for aboriginal food.

“It’s kind of like a new food,” Contois said. “Nobody really, at the time, tapped into aboriginal cuisine.”

As an instructor in Vancouver Community College’s aboriginal culinary arts program, Contois said it’s important to know the origins of aboriginal food,  which she described as an “up-and-coming cuisine.”

Contois said the rising interest in aboriginal food in Vancouver isn’t hard to explain.

“Aboriginal cuisine is a healthier cuisine depending on how it’s prepared. But it can also be quite delicious and high end.”

Friendship Catering Services, which runs its business as a subset of the non-profit Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society, is another caterer specializing in aboriginal food.

The society’s catering director, Gerry Brandon, an Anishinaabe chef and educator from Ontario, said more people are becoming interested in learning about aboriginal heritage and food.

For Brandon, who was among thousands of First Nations children taken away from their families and placed in foster homes during the infamous “’60s Scoop,” said being an aboriginal caterer is a part of his path toward reconciliation.

“As a scoop child, reconciliation is very personal to me,” he said. “I said, ‘Can I find reconciliation within myself?’ and I said, ‘No, I can’t because I can’t get my life back.’ But I said what I can do is show a whole world how talented First Nations people are [at] this whole idea of putting food together.”

Contois said authentic native ingredients can be expensive – but are worth it in her effort to add a new twist to aboriginal dishes.

Due to the volume of cooking that Brandon and his staff must accommodate, the traditional means of sourcing ingredients are often not possible.

“I have to be in town here cooking for 300 people at a barbecue, and I can’t get anybody to go out and forage that many mushrooms or that many fiddleheads,” he said.

When clients spend a little more money on an event, it makes it easier to get those special native ingredients.

“If you are charging $100 a head, you get a lot more leeway than if you are charging $21 per 150 people. Ultimately, it still comes back to being a business.”

Brandon said his sector is important because aboriginal food is rooted in nature and a sustainable connection with the planet. And while the world has been gradually turning toward a more sustainable approach to food, he said, “Natives have been doing that for thousands of years.”

Contois added that it’s important for more people to know about aboriginal food as a key to the history and culture of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.

“If you’re curious about aboriginal cuisine and the people, you want to know what foods they survived on because we’ve survived for so many years without getting diseases.”

Brandon’s longer-term plans for Friendship Catering Services involve adding a food truck and a retail line of rubs and sauces, and giving back more to people.

“I have big dreams about growing this … into a management-style business where we can help build other businesses [and] reserves with systems and training – help them produce real food on the reserve out of band kitchens and community kitchens.”