When visitors ask about Canadian cuisine, even people who were raised here will shrug. They might mention poutine, peameal bacon or a caesar. They might even list maple syrup, an Indigenous food that was appropriated by Canadians. Before settlers and colonization, the many different Indigenous Peoples who lived on this land had their own foodways and developed the first cuisines that were local to this region.

Against all of the obstacles — including historically having their culture and their children stripped away by the Canadian government, generations of knowledge and teachings that were prevented from being passed down, systemic racism and other barriers — Indigenous chefs also have the challenge of showcasing a cuisine that doesn’t have a succinct definition, and still remains relatively unknown to Canadians. Despite all this, many Indigenous chefs and restaurateurs across the country are making a name for themselves.

“We have over 600 Nations in Canada that need healing,” says Inez Cook, the owner of Salmon n’ Bannock, the only Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver. “People see Indigenous art, but most people aren’t going to have Indigenous food unless you’re invited to somebody’s home. So, it’s this big mystery. And Indigenous food is never one thing. It just depends where you lived and what was available.”

Through their own resiliency and determination, Cook and a number of other Indigenous culinary champions are reclaiming and redefining their ancestral food and sharing it through incredible, inspirational experiences across the country.

Following the national day being added to our calendars, there have been a lot of conversations surrounding truth and reconciliation. But talk is meaningless without action. “I’m calling it reconcili-action,” says Cook. “But I’m also about truth before reconcili-action. People need to hear the truth before they can move forward.”

Visiting an Indigenous restaurant or festival is about more than just enjoying delicious food made with fresh, local and sustainable ingredients — it’s an opportunity to support Indigenous chefs and makers. It’s a time for learning and understanding. It’s a chance to come together and break bread — or bannock — and unite communities in a shared experience.

We’re willing to travel for Michelin stars or sample another country’s authentic cuisine, but what about the food that is native to the land we live on and the people who were its first stewards? Canadian cuisine might not elicit a strong sense of place, but the impeccable culinary experiences that these Indigenous chefs are crafting will give you a true taste of the bounty and beauty this land has to offer — and further your understanding and appreciation for Indigenous cultures.

6 Indigenous food experiences and restaurants worth travelling for

1. Naagan, Owen Sound, Ontario

Zach Keeshig

Three hours north of Toronto, in Owen Sound, Zach Keeshig is serving one of the best tasting menus in the province. Few culinary experiences I’ve ever had can rival the creativity, freshness, mastery and taste of place in Keeshig’s cooking.

The formally trained chef worked in prestigious restaurants like Langdon Hall and Restaurant Pearl Morissette, and with big names like Michael Stadtlander before starting his upscale Indigenous dining experience, Naagan, as a pop-up at the Owen Sound Farmers’ Market.

“I wanted to do a tasting menu. But at the time, I felt like I was just sort of mimicking dishes that I had seen. It took a long time to figure out what I wanted to do for a style of Indigenous food,” says Keeshig. He realized that through his foraging, harvesting and sourcing, he was already creating a style of Indigenous food. “Then we went full dive into what progressive Indigenous food could be,” he says.

Drawing on his Ojibwe background and his culinary training, Keeshig forged his own style of Indigenous cuisine at Naagan. “A lot of the dishes, like the first dish people get when they come, is a memory from my childhood. It’s this bannock that my grandmother used to make,” he says. “Then a lot is from my research and asking elders what Ojibwe were eating in this area at that time.”

On a Saturday evening last fall, I make the drive to visit Naagan. The Owen Sound Farmers’ Market building is transformed into a candlelit scene with fur throws adorning the chairs. Each dish showcases incredibly fresh, local Indigenous ingredients made into modern dishes with the creativity and skill that Keeshig honed working in some of the province’s best restaurants. We eat crispy, chewy bannock with delicate Georgian Bay smoked salmon; fresh, firm potatoes in a herbal, creamy sauce; and tender venison in a rich, savoury jus that’s punctuated by tart black currants and a sweet pumpkin purée. Everything about the night feels special, from the story Keeshig tells about each dish as it’s presented to the beautiful plating in handmade pottery.

Going against the stigma that Indigenous people often face, Keeshig doesn’t serve any alcohol with his tasting menu. Instead, his grandmother’s cedar tea, kombucha, ginger beer and juice fill out the optional drink pairing. Keeshig also doesn’t want alcohol to dull the experience. “Any fish you’re ever served, we get straight from the Robichaud Commercial Fishing boats. Any herb that goes on there, we’ve grown or we forage. I just want people to appreciate the effort that we’re putting into giving them the best experience possible,” he says. “I want guests to feel that I went out and I did this stuff specifically for you that night.”

Later this spring, Keeshig plans to move Naagan into a more permanent home where guests can enjoy the experience year-round. “We’re going to do the inside to look like a wood cabin or a wood sweat lodge. There’s going to be Indigenous art on the wall. We’re going to do 17 seats, and continue with our tasting menu. This is going to be more of an open kitchen concept where people can see us,” he says.

Keeshig also hopes to offer guided foraging tours and continue spreading the word about his progressive Indigenous cuisine.

“If you ask somebody what Indigenous food is, they’ll tell you it’s bannock and wild rice, and squash and corn … But who says that we can’t get Indigenous-raised ducks and then go out and forage? Why can’t we serve an ice cream that’s modern, but then we’re flavouring it with sweet grass? Or flavouring it with the Chippewas of Nawash maple syrup?” he posits. “Looking at other Indigenous chefs, they’ve gone more of the traditional route, whereas I think we’re showing what [Indigenous cuisine] can be and what it could be in the future.”


2. Field to Shield Culinary Tour, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Jenni Lessard

Growing up in the bush by a lake in northern Saskatchewan, Jenni Lessard didn’t have TV or a telephone to occupy her time, so she started cooking at eight years old. When she got older, she worked at her uncle’s fruit stand in the summers, selling local produce. “That’s when it clicked. I grew up around berries, fish, moose meat and all this amazing stuff. But there’s a whole other world of local produce,” she says. “That was when my love of cooking with local ingredients came in.”

Lessard went on to have a table at a farmers’ market with her mother, a coffee shop and then, when the demand outgrew the space, her own restaurant. She became known for her unique cuisine. “They called it Jenni food — my style of mixing Métis, local ingredients and fusion all in one pot,” she says. Eventually, Lessard sold the building and began catering.

Although she never had formal culinary training at an institution, Lessard wouldn’t say she’s self-taught. “By saying I’m a self-taught chef, I’m discounting traditional food knowledge-sharing, and community and family knowledge-sharing,” she says. “I thank every one of my teachers, from my grandmothers to people in the community to the person whose trapline I visited when I was four years old and gave me my first plant teaching … Everybody taught me.”

In the latest chapter of her storied culinary career, Lessard started Inspired by Nature Culinary Consulting, which allows her to have a hand in a number of diverse projects. She developed an Indigenous and local foods patient menu for the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital; she helps with the café menu at Batoche National Historic Site, which she describes as, “the heart of our Métis community here in Saskatchewan, where the resistance happened”; and works with both Indigenous-owned and non-Indigenous tourism businesses.

“My most exciting project recently has been the Field to Shield Culinary Tour with Adventure Destinations International,” she says. The six-day tour starts in Saskatoon and stops for a small tour at Batoche National Historic Site before travelling to Thompson’s Resort in the boreal forest.

“The group receives a lot of cultural experiences and teachings from the people in the community,” says Lessard. “This is the traditional land of the people that live in Grandmother’s Bay, which is the Indigenous community right next to where the resort is. So, they go out on trapline visits, have language teachings and go fishing. We visit waterfalls in Saskatchewan … Then we have a long table outdoor dinner at the end with all the people from the community who have participated in the event.”

Before planning the itinerary, they spoke to community members and elders to find out if they would be involved — otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone ahead with those portions of the tour. “It’s a really cool example of a non-Indigenous and Indigenous experience being woven together,” Lessard says. She believes we’ll see more of these experiences as companies with the infrastructure to host larger-scale tours turn to the knowledge and wisdom of local Indigenous people.

As the interim executive director of Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations, Lessard also works to connect Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and businesses. The non-profit helps companies that are looking to include Indigenous food or Indigenous representation in an event by connecting them with an authentic Indigenous company or person.

“I feel like every piece of my life and my experience is now being able to be woven into a braided rug of experiences and projects. All of them have a connection to the other one,” she says.


3. Han Wi Moon Dinner, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Jenni Lessard

When Lessard first moved to Saskatoon, it was her dream to work with Wanuskewin Heritage Park. “It’s a very important archaeological site and it was a gathering place. Almost every Indigenous group from across the plane at one time stayed there.” In the 6,400 years of human occupation, there’s no evidence that a battle ever took place on this sacred, peaceful land.

She received permission from the elders to harvest from the valley and held the first Han Wi Moon dinner in 2018. Over the years, Han Wi has evolved to a five-night outdoor dinner series in Wanuskewin’s tipi village. This year, the dinners run from July 25 to 29.

While the multi-course meal is an incredible experience, “The food is only one part. It’s also the cultural teachings, the guided walk and the story of the park and its founder, archaeologist Dr. Ernie Walker. It’s a really incredible afternoon and evening of cultured food and storytelling,” she says.

While Lessard handles the dinner, she says that everyone on the team has a role to play. Archaeologist and heritage educator Honey Constant-Inglis, from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, leads the team and guests in an optional smudge at the beginning. “She does the guided tour and sits with the guests and has the conversations,” says Lessard. “It started out that it was more about the foods, the area and the archaeology, and now people are more interested in reconciliation and truth-telling. So, sometimes at the dinner, there are topics that come up that Honey addresses, and she does it in such a graceful but truthful way that I think people walk away really enriched with more knowledge and truth than they had before they arrived. I think that’s invaluable.”

Another unique thing that makes these dinners a special one-of-a-kind experience is that there’s always, what the team calls, a “Han Wi moment.”

“It’s often something like, when Honey was leading the group up the trail, all of a sudden, there was a mother deer with her young. Or as I was describing the meal, an eagle flew behind my head. We can’t promise those on a marketing sheet because you can’t plan for them,” Lessard laughs. “But we attribute that to the spirit of the valley. There’s always a spirit of the valley or Han Wi moment that inspires us and our guests … It’s just incredible. We’re meant to be doing this. And the guests are meant to be there.”



4. Salmon n’ Bannock, Vancouver, B.C.

Inez Cook

Local Indigenous art pieces line the bright red walls, and a canoe hangs from the ceiling inside Salmon n’ Bannock, an intimate bistro — and the only Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver. On the menu, Indigenous ingredients are served with a modern viewpoint and a modern palate, inspired by the world.

Vegetarian risotto is made with Anishinaabe wild rice and smoked cheese. None of the fish served here are farmed. Wild Pacific Ocean-caught sablefish is presented with Haudenosaunee corn polenta and bannock. Several dishes are served with blueberries infused with sage — the same sage that’s used for smudging. It’s all prepared by a team of talented Indigenous chefs who come from different Nations, and bring that inspiration to their cooking.

Salmon n’ Bannock’s owner and co-founder Inez Cook always knew that she wanted to open a restaurant, and from the age of 13, she was working in them. She spent 33 years as a flight attendant travelling the world but found herself always moonlighting in restaurants.

“I was always trying different food trends and getting inspired by the world around me. And originally, I wanted to open up a restaurant that would take people on a journey,” she says. “I’m adopted and I didn’t grow up in my culture. So, I was yearning for culture my whole life. Finding culture through food was really special to me.”

Cook toyed with different ideas for the restaurant she would open, until it hit her.

“I was in Kelowna and I saw a huge sign. It said, ‘Don’t panic, we have bannock.’ I made my friend stop the car,” says Cook. She then met the owners of Kekuli Café and got inspired. At the time, there weren’t any Indigenous restaurants in Vancouver. Knowing that the Winter Olympics were coming, Cook, along with her friend Remi Caudron, opened Salmon n’ Bannock with the hopes of providing visitors to Canada with a true taste of local cuisine.

Despite her name, Cook isn’t a chef, she just hires a great staff of Indigenous cooks. “I hate having titles in the kitchen. I find that a very colonial viewpoint of hierarchy. I like building a team. I really like all of us working together,” she says. “It’s an Indigenous way. Come together; work together. Come as you are. We have Indigenous hospitality in our veins.”

Indigenous food experiences in Canada | A salmon dinner at Salmon 'n' Bannock in Vancouver
Indigenous food experiences in Canada | A salmon appetizer at Salmon 'n' Bannock in Vancouver

This year marks the restaurant’s 14th anniversary, and in 2022, Cook expanded to a second location. Salmon n’ Bannock On The Fly is the first and only Indigenous restaurant in an international airport in North America. While huge accomplishments, it’s also important to recognize the barriers that have stood in the way and understand why there aren’t more Indigenous restaurants.

“In Vancouver, who wants to move to an expensive city away from your family and your community?” Cook postulates. “Furthermore, most of our foods are not even available in the commercial market yet. We’re working towards food sovereignty as well. So, there are so many layers, and so many doors that get slammed in our faces.”

Success didn’t come easily for Cook. Salmon n’ Bannock’s co-founder left after a few unprofitable years, but even from the start there were challenges. When she first opened the restaurant, Cook faced backlash because people were unsure if she was really Indigenous, or just appropriating and capitalizing on someone else’s culture.

Indigenous food experiences in Canada | Inez Cook, the owner of Salmon 'n' Bannock in Vancouver
Indigenous food experiences in Canada | Owner Inez Cook and the team standing outside Salmon 'n' Bannock in Vancouver

“My community is from Bella Coola, in British Columbia, and I’m Nuxalk. It was all over the news that a Nuxalk person opened this restaurant. But the Nuxalk community didn’t know me because I was adopted. I’m 60s scoop. So, they sent in spies to see if it was real,” Cook says.

Little learners

Inez Cook is also the author of two children’s books, Sixties Scoop and Sixties Scoop: Reconnection. The stories educate readers on the government practice of taking Indigenous children and putting them up for adoption, which was commonplace in the 1960s.

Sixties Scoop and Sixties Scoop: Reconnection, $15.99 and $16.99, eaglespeaker.com

A woman came into the restaurant asking a barrage of questions. When the only information Cook could offer was her biological mother’s first name, the woman started making phone calls. “I came back with her tea, she hung up, she stood up and she had her arms extended. She said, ‘Let me be the first to welcome you home. We’re family.’ That was the day that my life changed,” says Cook.

Family members came to visit Cook, including an uncle who had promised her late biological mother that he would find her. “He did a blessing for the restaurant, and he looked me in the eye and he said, ‘Your traditional name was going to be Snitsmana,’” she says.

“On 11/11/11, I went to Bella Coola for the first time as an adult, and I met 500 relatives. I received my traditional name in front of my community. I got my regalia gifted to me, with my family crest on the back of my button-blanket. It was the first day of my life, I felt good in my own skin. I got to stop searching for culture. I realized, as cheesy as it is, I was taking people on a journey, but I never knew the journey was my personal journey within. When you come to Salmon n’ Bannock, you feel that. It’s in the walls; it’s in the food.”


5. Jenna’s Nut-Free Dessertery, Fredericton, New Brunswick

Jenna White

In her mid-30s, Jenna White became deathly allergic to nuts. Shortly after that, she lost a large portion of her vision, becoming legally blind. Previously a stay-at-home-mom for 13 years, White began selling nut-free baked goods to regain some of her independence. “I started at the farmers’ market so I could show my children that it doesn’t matter what happens in life, you have the ability to make life work for you,” she says.

About three years ago, White moved from the farmers’ market into her own brick-and-mortar location, Jenna’s Nut-Free Dessertery in Fredericton, NB. The bakery and restaurant serves dishes like eggs benny on bannock for breakfast, and paninis; burgers on bannock; and traditional Indigenous soups, like duck and wild rice soup or bison and blueberry stew, for lunch. The premium desserts range from cheesecake and éclairs to profiteroles, entremets and panna cotta.

Indigenous food experiences in Canada | Jenna White, owner of Jenna’s Nut-Free Dessertery in Fredericton, New Brunswick
Indigenous food experiences in Canada | Jenna White cooks bannock over the fire

“It may not seem like there’s a whole lot of traditional food on our everyday menu; we just have it peppered in there,” she says. White also sells a line of goods, including coffee and bannock mixes, in stores across the province.

“Bannock is a little controversial, because it does have Scottish origins … So, some people don’t like having it included as traditional Indigenous food. I am Métis, so for me, it is very much traditional food. But it also symbolizes resilience and how adaptable Indigenous communities are,” she says.

When her bannock started gaining traction and people began realizing that they were getting a little taste of Indigenous cuisine, it sparked something for White. She started her Traditional Meal Series, a three-course fine-dining dinner held at the restaurant four times a year. This, along with other events and catering, is where her culinary prowess and Indigenous ingredients shine.

“We try to tie all of the flavours into traditional Indigenous ingredients, and then we highlight them in new and exciting ways. Our risotto is made with a burnt pine parmesan. We take some of those higher-end dishes that you would expect to find in a very nice restaurant and we create them with the foundation of traditional Indigenous ingredients. We allow people to explore a new palate and a new way of looking at Indigenous cuisine … We sell out every time we do it,” she says.

Dates for this year’s Traditional Meal Series can be found on the Dessertery’s website and social media, along with information about White’s catering and other events she’s participating in. This October, she’s collaborating with OG Ales, an off-grid brewing company, for a two-day forage-to-fork dinner. The outdoor multi-course sunset meal will highlight the Three Sisters — corn, bean and squash — three Indigenous ingredients traditionally grown together. Like at the Traditional Meal Series, “We try to weave some stories in with our food, so people understand what they’re eating and why it’s significant,” she says.

With events like this, White also hopes to show how Indigenous and non-Indigenous chefs and businesses can work together. At the forage-to-fork dinner, they’ll unveil a special collaboration brew.

White is also behind the first provincial cookie in Canada. “I came up with the maple blueberry cookie because all of the ingredients in the cookie are actually from New Brunswick,” she says. “[It’s] a nod to traditional Indigenous ingredients.” White mills her own wheat and makes her own sugar for the cookie, which was unveiled on New Brunswick Day 2023.


6. A Taste of the Atlantic, Various Atlantic provinces

Jenna White

It wasn’t enough for White to create all of these incredible culinary opportunities for herself. She also wanted to bring together and uplift other Indigenous chefs. White was inspired after visiting the International Indigenous Tourism Conference in Alberta and hearing what other Indigenous chefs were doing across the country.

She reached out to Indigenous chefs from all over the East Coast and started A Taste of the Atlantic, a festival that celebrates Indigenous cuisine and culture across the four provinces. Each year, it travels to a different province in late August or September. The festival sees chefs come together and collaborate on two world-class fine-dining experiences: a five- and a three-course dinner. During the day, a more family-friendly tasting experience allows guests to sample bites from different chef stations.

“I want people to understand that food is more than food. Food brings people to the table; it gets conversations started. It creates a doorway to experience a new culture. It can be a time machine; it can bridge the past and the present. It can forge connections. It’s a tangible piece of history. And it’s a way to share. For me, it’s very much about nourishing people but not just in the sense of eating,” she says.

White brought in Indigenous makers and artists to round out the experience. “By bringing in other aspects of the culture, it really created a truly unique festival that allowed people to participate in workshops and learn about beading, mask carving, painting — all sorts of different demonstrations. This past summer, we added in a Powwow as well,” she says. “It’s not only creating visibility for Indigenous cuisine and culture, but also creating opportunity.”

For White, one of the most rewarding parts of the festival is being able to bring in aspiring and young chefs who are getting their first experience working in a kitchen with Indigenous chefs and traditional ingredients.

White hopes to inspire more young people to get into the culinary field, and this spring, she’s unveiling Flavourscape Academy, the first-ever Indigenous culinary workshop residency program in Canada. “It’s to help build culinary experiences in the Indigenous tourism industry,” she says. “Hopefully, we’re going to see more and more of these experiences pop up all across the country.”