Prominent Alberta Chefs Dish Out a Unique Indigenous Food Tourism Experience

Imagine camping in a tipi under the stars in Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park, adjacent to beautiful Lac La Biche, while feasting on locally farmed, foraged and hunted delicacies, all prepared in traditional First Nations’ gastronomic style.

This lakeside experience about 220 kilometres northeast of Edmonton is what was served up to adventurous foodies at the first Cook it Raw Alberta event and the model for a new food tourism culinary camping program in the province.

“My purpose is sharing the knowledge of where we come from and history around food,” says Shane Mederic Chartrand, executive chef of Sage at River Cree Resort and Casino in Edmonton. “Each nation across Canada is so different in their history; there’s not one type of indigenous food. I’m trying my best to shed light on all indigenous food and its connection to history, spirituality… There’s not a whole lot of (recipe) traditions that have been written down.”

Chartrand has indigenous Enoch Cree Nation roots, and the culinary tours give him an opportunity to share stories and history with travellers to Alberta and local food tourists. He teaches cooking classes to indigenous youth, and took part in the Cook It Raw Alberta event.

The Cook It Raw series was launched in 2009 and unites top chefs from around the world, so they can collaborate and learn together in different international locations. In 2015, the event made its way to Alberta and the Cook it Raw chefs embarked on a culinary journey to Lac La Biche. Fourteen of the province’s top chefs descended upon Birch Island (or as the locals call it, cucumber island due to its shape) to hunt, forage, fish and participate in First Nations’ traditions such as a Sweat Lodge and the breakdown of the sacred bison.

indigenous food tour
Chefs use everything from local wheat berries and faro to freshly caught bison. Photo: Gabriel Hall

Chefs used everything from local wheat berries, faro, rose hips and barley to freshly caught fish and bison. The pilot project resulted in a shared final meal with the people of Beaver Lake Cree Nation.

“We move so fast these days. We don’t sit and talk, and share and listen to our own stories. Sharing food is a big part of that,” Chartrand says. “We don’t celebrate that nearly enough, and food makes those moments so much better; because food is medicine,
it changes who we are.”

That Cook It Raw Alberta event was a collaboration between the Native Friendship Centre, Sir Winston Churchill Park and the Alberta Culinary Tourism Tourism Alliance (ACTA). Following the first event, ACTA realized they had a special opportunity to develop a culinary camping experience that would be unique to Alberta.

Two years after the initial collaboration, the culinary camping pilot program was born, featuring Alberta chefs, such Chartrand, Debra Poulin (Twisted Fork in St. Paul) and Bill Alexander (Little Chief Restaurant at Grey Eagle Casino in Calgary). ACTA plans to run one cooking weekend inspired by indigenous food each year, and create a culinary calendar of events that travels around the province.

“As a foodie destination, Alberta is up and coming. We have some wonderful world-class chefs, and we’re starting to get some major international attention, in part due to programs like Cook it Raw which brings chefs together to collaborate and meet,” says Tannis Baker, executive director of ACTA. “Our chefs are starting to get invited to international events and conferences, and put Alberta on the culinary map.”