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Chef David Wolfman helps usher in a new era of Indigenous cuisine

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David Wolfman helps usher in a new era of Indigenous cuisine

The chef developed a signature take on 'Indigenous fusion,' inspiring a new generation of cooks to explore traditional foods that are often overlooked

Chef David Wolfman has been praised for championing Indigenous flavours and techniques well before the mainstream North American food scene paid attention.

Iroquois poutine with cayenne hominy. Vanilla salted duck with a birch reduction. Cold-smoked juniper salmon. For over 20 years, chef David Wolfman has been developing his signature take on what he calls "Indigenous fusion:" an epicurean gathering place for Indigenous and not-so-Indigenous fare.

"To me, it's making [Indigenous food] sexy – using enzymes like citrus from the south to break down fish, for example, instead of, say, covering it with skins, which may have been done back in the day," Wolfman said. It's an approach that has earned the St'át'imc chef fans for his long-time television show and brought protégés to his classrooms at George Brown College's chef school.

This month, Wolfman is launching his first recipe collection, Cooking with the Wolfman, which draws inspiration from Indigenous cuisines across the Americas. He's also being lauded as an innovator and an inspiration – one who championed Indigenous flavours and techniques well before the mainstream North American food scene paid attention.

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"David Wolfman takes a cuisine that was treated in Canada as almost an historical artifact and made it as a living cuisine again," said Dr. Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair in food security and the environment. Before colonization, many Indigenous foods and dining ceremonies were complicated and refined.

Wolfman's home community is the Xaxli'p First Nation, in British Columbia: Some of the more than 200 Indigenous nations on the West Coast were known to prepare meals over days or even months, while others served special dishes in massive, ornately carved feast bowls.

Today, as retailers and chefs highlight foods that are local and sustainable, Indigenous cuisine is increasingly appealing to Canadians. But there were long centuries in between, where Indigenous cuisine was seen as second-rate, Newman said. At best, it was "weird" or "exotic," but mainly, it was seen as inferior.

"Canadian Indigenous cuisine's status reflected the incredible injustices that were done to Indigenous people," Newman said. "We took their food from them, it was how we suppressed their cultures."

Wolfman grew up in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood. "I was a nine-year-old boy when my mom asked me to put on an apron and help her in the kitchen," he said about his start in the culinary arts. "For me, cooking food was about spending time with her and watching the way she beamed when all the food was set on the table like an art."

For many years, Wolfman's knowledge of Indigenous food mainly centred on salmon, which he cooked with his West Coast family. Even after he went to culinary school, he focused on foods that were high end in the European sense, using then-trendy ingredients such as phyllo pastry.

It was at an event at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto in the early 1990s that Wolfman really began to comprehend the full gamut of Indigenous cuisine. "It was a potluck style but since I had the chef uniform on, everyone was asking me, 'Hey, how do I cook this moose meat?' or 'What should I do with this dish?'" Wolfman said. He left his number beside a cake he'd made and calls poured in, leading him to start an Indigenous catering company.

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From there, his popularity as the go-to chef for Indigenous fusion soared. In 1999, he debuted Cooking with the Wolfman on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Today, the show plays on the First Nations Experience and Nativeflix networks in the United States and Wolfman holds rock-star chef status in Indigenous communities. To those looking to cuisine for cues of societal norms, he's helped to flip the once inferior status of Indigenous food on its head.

Wet'suwet'en chef Andrew George has known Wolfman since the two cooked together on the Native Canadian Haute Cuisine Team at the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1992. George said Wolfman inspired a generation of chefs keen to look beyond post-colonial fare such as bannock to traditional foods that often gets overlooked.

Wolfman's first recipe collection draws inspiration from Indigenous cuisines across the Americas.

"It's taken a long time for David and people like David to champion themselves as leaders in aboriginal foods," said George, the co-author of Feast!: Canadian Native Cuisine For All Seasons. "I take my hat off to David for that."

Now, an apprentice adviser for B.C.'s Industry Training Authority, George has seen a flourishing number of Indigenous people head to culinary school, then move on to cook fine cuisine. It's a far cry from his own time at Vancouver Vocational Institute in 1984, when he was one of only two culinary students of aboriginal descent.

"Today, the same school, now called the Vancouver Community College, is loaded with aboriginal cooks and they love what they do," he said.

The increase in Indigenous-owned restaurants has been slow but steady. One of the first was The Liliget Feast House that Gitxsan entrepreneur Dolly Watts opened in 1995, just blocks away from Vancouver's trendy West End. Kekuli, a Canadian aboriginal cuisine restaurant, opened in Kelowna, B.C., in 2005, and inspired Salmon n' Bannock, which opened in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics by Inez Cook and Remi Caudron.

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"The whole world was coming to Vancouver and there was not an Indigenous restaurant in the city any more," Cook said of their motivation. "I thought it was ridiculous." The restaurant has racked up scores of awards and serves dishes such as wild mushroom and Saskatoon berry bannock with moose gravy.

This year, Toronto has seen the opening of two Anishinaabe restaurants – NishDish and Kukum Kitchen – while Winnipeg now has Feast Cafe Bistro, which serves grass-fed bison ribs and trains young Indigenous people for culinary careers.

All of it is a testament to the commitment of Wolfman and the value of what he's been doing. "The importance of keeping our recipes, is like the importance of sharing our stories or our languages," Wolfman said. "The more we use them and respect our traditions, the more we save."

Cooking with the Wolfman: Indigenous Fusion was released on Oct. 7, 2017

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