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Chef Jenni Lessard near the south Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon, on Oct. 30. Lessard is working with the Saskatoon children’s hospital’s food program.Liam Richards/Photo Liam Richards

Saskatchewan chef Jenni Lessard is part of a notable wave of Indigenous culinary leaders in Canada who have sought to bring their cuisine to a mass audience while mixing food with storytelling.

For Ms. Lessard, that work has included her own restaurants and cafes, catering work, and consulting. Most recently, she became the first female executive chef at Saskatoon’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a non-profit First Nations cultural and historical centre and a national historic site.

So when the Saskatchewan Health Authority asked for her help last year to spearhead a new Indigenous-focused meal program for Saskatoon hospitals, she jumped at the chance.

“My motivation for cooking has always been that I want to feed people,” said Ms. Lessard, who is also involved with the Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations.

“What better place can you help feed people than a hospital? It’s always fun to do things like culinary competitions where, you know, you have three hours to discuss where to put a dot on a plate, but this just felt so much more important.”

The Saskatoon hospital program is called Advancing Cultural Humility Through Food. Financed by Nourish and the Frontline Fund, the initiative had a group of Indigenous culinary-minded professionals from across Saskatchewan – including elder and food-security advocate Diana Bird – come together from February to May of this year. They eventually created recipes that the health authority could then scale up for use in health-care facilities.

Ms. Lessard says the idea of creating recipes for hospitals presented some unique challenges.

Because hospital kitchens have industrial-sized cookware and are most often reheating parts of meals before serving them, recipes needed not only to be well-balanced and appealing, but they also had to endure cooling down, occasionally being frozen, then thawed, and reheated.

At the Saskatchewan Children’s Hospital, Ms. Lessard’s menu creations are available to children 4 to 14. Though the items have playful names such as “pop tart,” “nuggets” and “pizza pop,” they are brimming with local ingredients such as crab apples, bison, pulses, squash and much more.

“The advisory committee wanted Indigenous proteins like rabbit, bison and duck. We don’t know if kids are going to order that because there is a chance you grew up in the city or aren’t eating traditional foods,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that if I was using those proteins that I put them into something comforting that would be familiar to them, like a pot pie.”

The adult menu, which is offered to Indigenous patients at the city’s other main hospitals, does away with the kid-leaning names and offers further recognizable Indigenous ingredients such as wild rice from Northern Saskatchewan, foraged chokecherries and lake fish.

“A lot of times elders will go into hospital and not even be able to eat the food because it’s just so radically different from what they’re used to eating. Now, if I’m an elder coming in from a place like Black Lake, I can come to the hospital in Saskatoon and have food that resonates with my culture,” she said.

Charlotte Pilat Burns, manager of safety and regional food services for Saskatchewan Health Authority, said Ms. Lessard’s work will help the agency expand Indigenous food offerings in the province.

Ms. Lessard added that being part of the health authority’s indigenous-food program has allowed her to incorporate many local Saskatchewan producers into the hospitals’ food systems. She has worked with the producers with since opening her first restaurant in La Ronge in 2005.

With the menu project now wrapped, a representative for SHA says the feedback from Indigenous patients has been hugely positive. The organization anticipates that the work of Ms. Lessard and her fellow members of the initiative will be felt for years to come.

“This is so different from cooking in a restaurant. You have your menu, the food gets ordered and it goes out and then people like it, or they don’t. Here, the work has been rewarding, but the stakes are high. If people in the hospital don’t eat that meal, it can impact their health,” Ms. Lessard said.

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