Chef Joseph Shawana: Inspired Indigenous Cuisine

by Miche Genest

Pulled Caribou at Kū-Kŭm Kitchen in Toronto.

When chef Joseph Shawana was growing up on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron, and he wanted to eat morel mushrooms, he just went outside and picked some. “I didn’t even know how much morels cost until I moved to Toronto and people were talking about morels for 50 or 60 bucks a pound, and that was quite a steal,” he says. “And here I am at home just frying them in a little bit of garlic and butter.”

Cedar, juniper, partridge, the white-tailed deer and a “huge abundance” of morels are just some of the wild flora and fauna found in Shawana’s traditional territory on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve. Along with cultivated foods sourced from small, local producers, wild foods form the backbone of the menu at Shawana’s Toronto restaurant, Kū-Kŭm Kitchen.

The seasonal menu reflects Shawana’s heritage and his training—he attended culinary school in Toronto and worked in several restaurants there, most recently at Snakes and Lattes, where in 2016 he featured a special Aboriginal Day menu that quickly sold out, eventually inspiring him and partner Ben Castanie to start up Kū-Kŭm.

Shawana’s 27-seat spot, opened barely a year ago in an older mid-town neighbourhood, is one of four Indigenous restaurants in Toronto, and his work is emblematic of a new wave of Indigenous chefs across Canada who are wowing diners by combining traditional ingredients with contemporary cooking techniques.

Three of those chefs—Shawana, Shane Chartrand of Sage Restaurant in Edmonton, and Christa Bruneau-Guenther, chef and owner of Feast Café Bistro in Winnipeg, will be in Carcross, Yukon Territory on April 7, cooking for the First Nations Fire Feast, a Yukon Culinary Festival event co-hosted by Northern Vision Development. Held in the Carcross Tagish First Nation’s newly built Learning Centre, the feast will be cooked, as the title suggests, over open fires, and will feature dishes that highlight the food systems of Indigenous peoples.

“It’s a really good opportunity to showcase Indigenous cuisine,” says Shawana. In the spirit of collaboration and mentorship, each chef will work with a Yukon First Nations chef or culinary student to produce dishes that celebrate Indigenous cuisine.

Shawana will bring a few different Indigenous traditions with him, starting off the multi-course meal with a squash, corn and bean soup that honours the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois nations of southern Ontario and the north-eastern United States. Squash, corn and beans are known as the Three Sisters in that tradition; they are companion plants that help each other in the growing phase. Corn stalks support the bean runners, the bean plants fix nitrogen, and squash provides ground cover, moisture retention and protection against rodents.

As a tribute to the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, Shawana will serve seal loin, seared in a pan over the fire and accompanied by sautéed sea asparagus from the West Coast, some wild onions and wild garlic, and fire-roasted Yukon beets.

Shawana took some flak when he introduced seal meat at Kū-Kŭm in October 2017. A petition with more than 3,000 signatures circulated online, demanding he remove seal from the menu. That sparked a counter-petition from a Toronto Indigenous artist, who was frustrated at the bad press Shawana was getting, and with a more  general misunderstanding of Indigenous culture and traditions.

Shawana was aware he might be headed for controversy. “We were hesitant to have [seal] on the menu here at first, just because we knew we’d get a little bit of backlash for it,” he says. But, as he told CBC in an earlier interview, “…it’s part of the northern community’s culture. So we’re trying to pay homage to them, as we do with everything else.… It’s all dietary needs of the Indigenous communities from east to west.” Seal meat is still on the menu at Kū-Kŭm, and Shawana says it’s doing very well. Not long ago he served his seal to a party of Inuit diners. “It was their first time of having seal the way we serve it here,” he says. “They loved it.”

Seal Tartare, with nasturtium.

Shawana learned to love cooking at his grandmother’s side; she cooked for the family and for the community.  “My grandmother played a huge role in all of our lives growing up. That’s part of the reason I named my restaurant Kū-Kŭm. Another reason is my wife is Cree and Kū-Kŭm means grandmother in Northern Cree—so it’s a way of paying tribute to my wife [too], who is a huge part of who I am today.” A mural of his grandmother, his mother and his mother-in-law graces one wall of the restaurant.

Dinner at Kū-Kŭm might include main courses of pulled caribou wrapped in caul fat, goose with puff pastry, or bouillabase of mixed Canadian fishes and seafoods in a cedar and anise broth. Dessert could be a pot of rich chocolate mousse lightly flavoured with lavender. But the meal always ends with a cup of cedar tea. In winter, passersby can drop in, even if the restaurant isn’t open, to warm up with a cup of that same tea.

“My grandmother always taught us to keep the door open, because you never know who’s going to want to come in and get fed, or just keep warm,” says Shawana. “

That simple, human hospitality goes hand in hand with Shawana’s philosophy of respect for whole ingredients and for bringing community together over food. “We deal with smaller businesses that actually know their products and know their farmers and their families, and know how everything is harvested.” Shawana sources wild ingredients from Forbes Wild Foods, who work with several Indigenous communities in Ontario. “So we’re helping that business out, which in turn helps out a lot of First Nations communities.”

Before Shawana was approached by organizers to take part in the First Nations Fire Feast, he wasn’t aware there was a food scene happening in the Yukon. “It doesn’t surprise me, just considering that everybody is starting to go back to the roots of where food actually comes from.”

“It doesn’t come from the grocery store, it comes from [outside] our back doors.”

To purchase tickets for the First Nations Fire Feast, visit here.

Vertical Agriculture Coming to Carcross

A vertical agriculture facility is in the planning stages with the goal of having it built in Carcross this fall. This innovative project will be the first  of its kind in the Yukon.

Tami Grantham, Natural Resources Coordinator with the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, says:  “What attracted us to this technology is the ability to grow greens year-round. It’s a goal and a mission for the government of Carcross-Tagish First Nation to become food-secure.”

Construction would be managed through a new corporation created as a partnership between the Carcross-Tagish First Nation and Northstar Agriculture of which the First Nation will be 51 per cent owner.

The system will recirculate water from a fish tank through a vegetable grow bed. Nutrients from the fish waste feed the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy. In normal aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by bacteria into nitrates, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.

The vertical part of this type of farming will be in the form of stacked layers that could be up to 10 meters high, in order to maximize production, contained in a warehouse-style space.

Not only would this mean a possibility for fresh local produce and lower food prices in the community, but also the promise of food security, as this system allows year-round growing of vegetables in a sustainable way.

The fish raised would be Tilapia, which is common in farming systems. Vegetables grown would include kale, spinach, and perhaps even strawberries and other vine crops.