For a city that seems to flaunt its diversity at every opportunity, it is surprising that Toronto hasn’t had much of a spotlight on Indigenous cuisine. Recently, though, things have started to change with a small collective of Indigenous restaurants opening over the last year, including NishDish and Pow Wow Cafe.
This new influx happens to overlap with Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, for which we’ve started to become more introspective, asking questions about the origins of this country and its cuisine.
Chef Joseph Shawana’s goal is to illuminate that topic with his new Indigenous restaurant on Mount Pleasant, Ku-Kum Kitchen. Shawana is Odawa, part of the Three Fires Confederacy, and is from the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve located on Manitoulin Island. I sat down with him to hear his inspiring personal journey from the reserve to the kitchens of Toronto.
I hear you’re a natural at foraging, going back to your kid days on Manitoulin Island.
Growing up on the reserve, we had a very hard life. There were more downs than ups. My mother and father took turns working, so there was always one parent at home. We would be saving as much as we could and scraping by. So foraging became a very natural thing at an early age. We learned to use most of the ingredients around the place. My food rootings came from that time.
How often would you forage?
When we were growing up, in my early years, we would head out into the bush almost daily and stay out from morning to night in some cases. We would eat wild berries and wild licorice, which have a purple shoot you can chew on. The elders would teach us some things, but most of it was self-discovery.
And that led to being inspired to cook?
Growing up, I cooked with my mother and grandmother all the time. They were strong, independent women, and a real inspiration for me. They would cook at local events and I was always in the back helping. My aunts would cook and all my uncles would go hunting. We would stock our freezers for the winter. It was a way of life. I didn’t think much of it. Then, when I moved to Toronto, it was a different story. Everything was measured by how convenient it is.
Were you planning on becoming a cook when you moved to Toronto?
I was always interested in food but I didn’t know where it would go. I knew that I didn’t really have a future up north so I decided to give Toronto a try. I went to culinary school but dropped out just before graduating.
What was the impetus behind that decision to go out on your own?
I felt that I knew the basics of cooking, and I wanted more self-discovery. I prefer to work by myself. My instructors told me that I was a little ahead of the curve. I figured I would just carve the path my way.
Back then Toronto had a real obsession with Italian and French cooking.
You couldn’t escape it. My first real exposure to French cooking and fine dining was at Herbs [now closed]. I was in my early 20s. Prior to that I worked a stage at Bistro 990. It was eye-opening to see that the French style of cooking can really bring out some of the flavours of rare ingredients.
I started to think about the kinds of foods I grew up with and how they would work through French cooking. I wasn’t ready to do anything with that knowledge yet, because I wanted to learn more about the industry. So I ended up taking a gig with the Rogers Centre.
It’s a strange shift to go from smaller restaurants to big corporate operations.
The biggest lesson was that there’s more to a restaurant than your mom and pop operation. There are other ways to chef in the city. I learned about structure, time management, forecasting menus. There were a lot of spreadsheets. I enjoyed it, but I felt like I needed more as a chef. I then went to work at C5 at the Royal Ontario Museum and I would say that’s where my eyes were really opened up about using local ingredients.
In what sense?
I suddenly had access to a database of small-to medium-size producers throughout the province. The tree was expanding in my mind. At C5 there was more flexibility in changing a dish on the menu, or bringing in something new. It was French-style cooking again, but using seasonal ingredients.
Foraging became a very natural thing for me at an early age
You suddenly noticed that the proverbial tree of life had other unexplored branches?
I learned about producers that were growing all sorts of small things. Personally, I felt a connection. It reminded me of being a kid and trying things that none of my Toronto friends had ever heard of.
But you still weren’t ready to cook the food of your Indigenous roots?
When I became executive chef at Snakes & Lattes, I had to keep the menu accessible. I wasn’t ready to do my own food because I felt a barrier that I had put up over the years. I was bullied in school. I had many friends that defended me, but the constant teasing got to me, stripping away my self-esteem. I didn’t think anyone would want to eat the cuisine of my heritage, so I never wanted to cook it. I ended up carrying that baggage with me for a long time. I started cooking at 13, and now at 35 I’m finally opening an Indigenous restaurant.
Did you feel like others didn’t want to embrace your heritage?
Not really. Any barriers I felt were ones I put up myself. I was very standoffish up until recently. I remember working at the Victory Cafe in Toronto, and the entire staff embraced my heritage. I used to take cooks up to the island with me and they would always be very interested. But it wasn’t until I met my wife Vanessa nearly four years ago that things started to change. She is the one that encouraged me to flaunt my wings. She spread that energy on to me. It really is because of her and my fellow colleagues that I gained the confidence to cook this type of food.
We’re going through a very introspective period in Canada where we’re finally looking at the cultural roots of this country, and food is a big part of that.
Five years ago I wouldn’t have thought of opening a restaurant like this. But now there is a younger generation that is breaking the mould and bringing positiv energy and confidence to the scene. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s a noticeable force when you go to other Indigenous restaurants that have recently opened in the city.
The younger generation is breaking the mould and bringing positive energy
There is a noticeable spurt in this type of food. It really seems to be finding an audience in Toronto.
I think a lot of us are realizing that we need to let go of the past and look at the future. We, as Indigenous chefs, are all on our own journeys through the industry. I know for me, as soon as my son was born, I realized that I needed to let go of the past and think about my future and my culinary legacy. The coming of age, and places like Tea n Bannock that got the momentum going, and others feeling like they could also open a place. It’s surprising and humbling that everyone is so receptive.
And speaking of that, you also didn’t open this restaurant downtown. You picked a specific midtown neighbourhood for it.
There can be many barriers for an Indigenous chef to thrive in the city. Like I mentioned, I had my personal barriers, but there are others as well. We’re educating the public when it comes to Indigenous cuisine, so there’s that challenge. But bigger than that is the cost of operating a place downtown. It’s nearly impossible for an independent business to afford the rent. Everyone is slowly moving uptown and around the city. I lucked out because I found a neighbourhood that has embraced this restaurant from day one.
How do you define Indigenous cuisine?
I see it as a few ingredients on a plate working very well together to create something astonishing. It’s that feeling of being on a boat, catching a fish and then cooking it right there. That unbridled taste. It’s not mass-produced. It is the truest essence of terroir.
How is the mix of French influence with Indigenous ingredients working out?
It’s a great marriage in many ways. We use more or less the same ingredients I grew up with, but we’re using wine and herbs and time to handle proteins and vegetables. We have a lot of Europeans in this neighbourhood that love game meats, and they love seeing elk or venison on the menu.
You’ve become a role model for other young Indigenous chefs in the city. Is there a sense of community?
It’s too new to tell. There aren’t too many of us that are stepping up and speaking out. We’re trying to get a community together. My wife and I are planning to regularly load up a refrigerated van and tour around various neighbourhoods in Toronto and feed the homeless. We want to give back to the community as much as we can.
Are you optimistic about the future of Indigenous cuisine?
It’s going in a really good direction. There is a fresh spirit about the cuisine and I’m hoping that it continues in this way. The next step would be to start an alliance or a chef group to create a sense of community. It’s something I’m seriously considering as a way to pay it forward and to help people like I have been helped.