This blog post was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when physical distancing and other COVID health and safety protocols were not in effect. The businesses and communities featured in this article may be once again welcoming visitors but please double check as some are only open with limited operations and others have not yet reopened.
I first met Chef Shane Chartrand, executive chef at the River Cree Resort and Casino, at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto this year, he was wearing traditional chef whites with a bold Coast Salish feather design on the back. I listened as he captivated the packed conference, speaking about his life and background, talking about the importance of hunting and fishing and respecting his Indigenous roots with Metis and Cree heritage from Enoch, Alberta.
I interviewed Shane recently for a story I wrote about the rise of First Nations cuisine in Canada, and was thrilled to read the news that he won the Edmonton heat at the prestigious Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championships. This is a big deal. Chef Chartrand won gold by the largest margin of victory in the event’s history, and he’s the first Indigenous chef to win. I called to congratulate and asked what it was like to be a gold medal winner…
What did you have to do to prepare?
This was my seventh time competing, I’ve won two bronze medals and a silver, but this was my first time winning gold. For me, it’s not about being better it’s about being different; I’d never say I’m better than anyone else, it’s about doing the very best that I can do.
It took me around two months to figure out what I was going to cook, and then I practiced about 15 times, then had two parties of eight so I could try and be as fast as possible. You have to make up seven plates for the judges in ten minutes, along with your team of ten making and serving 750 portions in two hours. It’s crazy!
I decided to change things and make a cold dish this time; every other year I’ve made something hot. Cold brings its own challenges— it’s harder to make it taste better, but if I did a cold dish and made it incredible, I thought that would just go further.
The prep for these events is huge, for four days beforehand we worked eight hours a day preparing everything, we want the guests to have as close to what the judges are having as possible. We’re allowed to work with a 10-person team: two expediters to pass the plates out, seven people behind the station saucing, prepping, putting all the food on the plates, and then one person wiping the plates. I’m on a separate table for the judges and I don’t do anything but focus on their plates.
What did you cook?
Last year my dish had 100% Indigenous ingredients, this year I did almost the opposite, although I did have wild game using pheasant breast enriched with pork neck fat, that’s why I picked a Pinot Noir from Tantalus in B.C. to pair with it. I tried to keep things Canadian: pears from B.C., a plum sauce I made with plums from the Okanagan, foie gras from Quebec—usually I don’t touch foie gras, but I’ve not worked with it for so long, this year I decided I just wanted to bring it back and try again. This dish was inspired by my imagination, not necessarily the ingredients, I wanted something so visually striking that someone could think it belonged be in an art book.
What’s the hardest thing on the night of the contest?
The hardest thing to be honest isn’t the work, it’s the waiting for the results, which takes two hours and all you can think is: did I do well? Did I do enough? Maybe the dish wasn’t what they expected? But this year I worked so hard on this that no matter what happened I was OK with it psychologically, I knew I had done the best that I could do. I thought that dish was beautiful.
What kind of Indigenous elements do you like to bring into your cooking?
I like to use salal berries from the west coast, different mosses, I picked up some reindeer lichen here in Edmonton the other day, we’re playing with that right now, cattails, I love working with things like that.
What impact do you think your success is having on your community?
I’m getting a lot of notice at the moment; I’ve had great career success this year, from being invited to Toronto to speak at Terroir, presenting at REDx talks, being invited to the Chef Meets Grape event in the Okanagan. I’ve had nothing but great responses from chefs I don’t even know too, I met an East Indian chef recently who told me that he was watching everything I do: the outdoor cooking, putting Aboriginal twists on my cuisine and helping people understanding our culture more. I’m the only Aboriginal to ever win Gold Medal Plates, which just adds another level of success. I take it just as humbly as I take everything else, ego stops everything positive in the culinary world, but nothing will ever change where I come from, it’s a big thing in Indigenous culture, never forgetting those touchstones of where you come from and non-Aboriginal people are starting to really starting to pick up on what we’re doing.
Now we go to Kelowna for the finals in February, I have three dishes and they’re the best dishes I’ve ever done. I’ll revisit my ‘War Paint’ dish, and a ‘stained glass mirror’ fish dish too, I cut the fish in long strips, stain them in beet juice, dry them, coat them in a meat glue, and make a log and tie it up, so when you slice it, it looks like stained glass, it’s all marbled, I’m going to be practicing those a lot.
This was my last year competing, my feeling was I’d work as hard as I can, and I did. I am so relieved; I don’t ever need to do this again! We won, and we broke records, we truly cleaned house, we got Gold, best sip for the Tantalus Pinot Noir, and best pairing too, It’s gonna take a long time to forget that feeling, it was pretty amazing.
And if you don’t win?
I’m good with it. I’m gonna showcase two great Indigenous dishes, and we’re gonna work hard and work smart. Dishes that we can make quickly, it’s just two of us at the final and we have to do 450 plates! It’s crazy. We have to do a Black Box contest, then a blind wine pairing contest, where we get given wine and have to create a dish to pair with it and then the next day it’s the signature dish again. Eleven cities compete.
No one’s said much about it, apart from the River Cree where I work: they’re just losing their minds! Mrs Universe, Ashley Callingbull is River Cree too, she’s really cool! It’s great to be able to be someone who offers kids an opportunity to see that you can do anything. You can make your dreams come true, I know that is so clichéd but it’s true.
And if people want to check you out at your restaurant in Edmonton?
If people come and they want to explore a little more, I’ll be doing an Aboriginal tasting menu, I use a lot of bison which is in the terroir of my area: so bison tongue, belly, hump, everything bison! I have a lot of wild game: rabbit, squab, and so on. I often have hunted food which I cannot charge for but—I can give it away! So, you’ll get freebies such as two prong antelope, big horn sheep, seal meat, it’s a good experience for people.
Chef Shane Chartrand, is currently shooting a documentary about Indigenous communities across North America, and regularly speaks about Indigenous food and communities across Canada and has acted as host and curator to the popular Indigenous xREDx Talks.