Jennifer Lessard proudly boasts Métis heritage and has had a culinary résumé that includes restaurant owner, award-winning caterer and, most recently, executive chef of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Born in Northern Saskatchewan just outside of La Ronge, the chef grew up surrounded by boreal forest and began exploring what her surroundings had to offer at a very young age.
“At home, I was immersed in a food culture of using the ingredients that surrounded me. By the time I got older and started working [as a chef], I wasn’t using local or foraged ingredients because it was ‘cool,’ it was because I was aware they were growing on the land and that they were available to me.”
Ms. Lessard is one of a growing number of chefs on the Prairies to focus on bringing Indigenous cuisine to diners, while capitalizing on a wider trend of foraging that is influencing celebrated restaurants in Canada and around the world.
Ms. Lessard became executive chef of the park last fall, also becoming its first female chef since it opened in 1992. She began working on a series of experiential dinner events called the Han Wi Moon Dinners close to three years ago. During these monthly events, the chef and a park interpreter guide small groups on trails through the Opimihaw Creek Valley to showcase sites such as the valley’s buffalo jump as well as the vast amount of plant species thriving on the land and how Indigenous people might use various ingredients for medicinal or culinary purposes.
By the time the group climbs back up to the top of the valley, Ms. Lessard presents a contemporary Indigenous feast that starts off with bannock cooked in a crackling fire that is served warm with spruce tip butter, bison liver pâté, Northern pike cakes accented with juniper and chokecherry vinaigrette, bison tenderloin with stinging nettles and more. As people eat, they experience a traditional storyteller and singer while the sun sets and the moon rises.
“Honestly, every Han Wi Moon Dinner has its own shiver-inducing moment, whether it’s an eagle flying over as you’re taking your first bite of your main course or watching the moon rise behind a traditional singer when cloudy skies were forecast,” explains Ms. Lessard. “Maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit, but the food is probably only 20 per cent of the experience.”
Although these immersive dinner experiences are limited to 20 to minimize the environmental impact to the park, Ms. Lessard says she prefers it that way as people can walk away from the evening having learnt more about Indigenous food.
The chef says that although COVID-19 has resulted in the park pressing pause on its operations and having to delay some of this season’s dinners, she herself has had more time to be educated on the land and what it offers.
“The pandemic has actually been really good for that. It’s given me a lot of time to have been able to have conversations and learn more about the history of this land and how to better respect ingredients. I continue to learn from both the elders and the interpretive staff.”
The Han Wi Moon Dinners resume in August and Wanuskewin Heritage Park is set to fully reopen on Sept. 5.
Winnipeg restaurateur Christa Bruneau Guenther, a member of the Peguis First Nation, opened her popular eatery Feast Bistro in 2015. Founded on home recipes she had cooked over the years, her restaurant focuses on educating diners about Indigenous cuisine in both an approachable and affordable way.”
“It can be expensive to source ingredients like venison or even wild rice. If I want a young single mom to come in and experience her own people’s food for the first time, I want her to be able to afford something,” says Ms. Bruneau Guenther adamantly. “I source at a decent price and focus on supporting Indigenous communities while doing it.”
Feast Bistro’s menu is comfort food through-and-through. Using bannock as a base for many dishes such as pizza, bison burgers and pickerel sliders, the chef aims to inform people through humble plates of food.
“I’ve had an elder come in here who had a piece of fry bread with wild berry jam and cried. He told me he hadn’t had a dish like that since before residential schools were introduced,” she says. “Bannock has always been around, but years ago in Manitoba, the bannock might have been made with things such as cattails, wild rice or corn flour ... it’s evolved to [its simple all-purpose flour base] because of residential schools.”
Outside of her restaurant, Ms. Bruneau Guenther has become more of a recognizable face in the Canadian food scene as a judge on the popular television show Wall of Chefs. Another Indigenous chef, Shane Chartrand of Edmonton, also appears on the series.
“For the last decade, I have been just hoping to see an Indigenous person represented on Food Network Canada,” she says. “I am a humble person, but thank goodness! For them to finally open that door is a blessing and it’s great that they have culinary talent to pull from.”
Ms. Bruneau Guenther says she’s been happy to see more and more Indigenous chefs finding a foothold in the Canadian culinary industry in recent years. Organizations such as the Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations, which both her and Jennifer Lessard are a part of, are also helping to uplift Indigenous people to success.
“It’s exciting to see Indigenous cuisine really gain traction over the past few years,” Ms. Bruneau Guenther says. “It’s really about our people and the celebration of our culture, our resilience and reconciliation. That’s what Indigenous food means to me here at Feast.”