North Van's Tsleil-Waututh Nation holds aboriginal-fusion cooking classes
“It’s not as gamey as people think,” says chef Andrew George as he prepares elk medallions in the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s bustling community kitchen.
He briskly mixes yellow, orange and red squash together for his Three Sisters Salsa and carefully places the tender elk meat around it.
Elk isn’t difficult to cook, he says, so his culinary students catch on quickly. He adds a few more medallions to the plate then hops over to the stove, where one of his students is intensely cooking.
“That we’re able to cook elk brings more meaning to the course,” he says, flipping a pan of salsa as it grills over the stove’s flame.
“It’s done medium-rare,” he adds, cutting a thin slice to sample.
For the first time in a century, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation is able to hunt Roosevelt elk in the Indian River Watershed, part of the Nation’s traditional territory at the end of Indian Arm.
Elk had nearly disappeared from B.C. by the 1880s due to overhunting, but 20 were reintroduced by the nation and the provincial government to the watershed in 2006. Since then, the population has grown to 50, allowing a few to be hunted sustainably in mid-October.
Chef George uses the harvested meat to teach his students traditional cooking combined with added influences, like French and African cuisine.
He’s leading the first class of the Tsleil-Waututh culinary arts program, a 28-week program that emphasizes aboriginal cooking and gives students their Professional Cook Level 1 certificate.
Today, along with two of his students, he’s preparing lunch to present to the community to celebrate the inaugural class’s graduation.
George, who has been a chef for 25 years, has worked at the Chateau Whistler and Vancouver’s Four Seasons hotel, as well as running a restaurant and catering in the 1990s.
His long resumé also includes membership in the Canadian Native Haute Cuisine team that participated in the Culinary Olympics in Germany and writing an aboriginal cookbook. He attended Vancouver Community College, earning his Red Seal in the late 1980s, after leaving Smithers, B.C., where he was raised as hereditary wing chief for the Bear Clan in the traditional system of the Wet’suwet’en people.
To prepare for the course, George toured the United States, examining culinary schools in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and California.
“Aboriginal people are hard workers and good with their hands. Not only that, they’re artistic,” he says, which gives his students the ideal skill set for careers in the food industry.
Over the seven-month course, he teaches his students a fusion style of cooking to add to traditional techniques.
“We have an exotic treat today,” he announces, holding a plate of ostrich meat. Ethiopian spice is used to give the dish “true African flavour.”
On the other side of the kitchen, student Eugene Crane squeezes salmon mousse onto baguettes to be served as appetizers. The mousse is made with fresh salmon, sour cream, cream cheese and dill, he says.
“There will be a shortage of cooks in Vancouver by 2020,” George says, “so this is an industry with a lot of potential for our people.”
And this is exactly what the Tsleil-Waututh Nation hopes will happen. Many of the students have had challenging lives, says Tsleil-Waututh councillor Carleen Thomas, adding the program will prepare them for rewarding careers in the food industry, both on and off-reserve.
“Aboriginal food is about the healthiest food you can get. It’s natural, has no preservatives and a lot of omega-3s and vitamins,” says George, adding his students are already putting their skills to the test by cooking healthy meals for their families at home.