Mòshkamo: Chef Rich Francis forges his own path to Indigenous cuisine

NAC Executive Chef Kenton Leier and Chef Rich Francis.

Rich Francis was working on a construction site in London, Ontario when he made a decision that changed his life.

The son of a Gwich’in father and a Mohawk mother hails these days from Six Nations near Hamilton. At the time he was an iron worker. He was making good money and had a pension. But that summer was hot and he was literally cooking on the job.

One day, more than a decade ago and after three or four heat strokes, he just decided he needed to do something.

“I wasn’t feeling it any more in the trade that I was in. I was set, with a pension and a decent wage.” He came home from work and told his wife he was going to become a chef. Those were the days when the celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay and Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse were on the Food network and Francis was intrigued.

“I just caught some inspiration from there, but (before then) I had never cooked professionally,” he said. He enrolled in the Stratford Chefs School and it woke  up his interest.

Two years later he finished at the top of his class.

A lot of the people who inspired him were people such as his Gwich’in grandmother who provided a lot of his early food memories from places like fishing camps in the Fort McPherson area of the Northwest Territories.

“That cemented my early palate,” he said. But it wasn’t until he became a chef that he resurrected those memories and started to really explore the ingredients that make up his Indigenous cuisine.

His modern Indigenous cuisine, he said, has become a fusion of the Gwich’in and Mohawk roots. The Iroquois were master horticulturalists. His Mohawk grandparents had a farm and the table was always full of “awesome” food.

This was a fateful decision that took him on a journey full of twists and turns, but today he is a well-known chef who has forged a path that includes finding and using the ingredients eaten by Indigenous peoples of Canada for thousands of years.

He’s bringing those ingredients and that knowledge to the National Arts Centre this week. He’s first of four emerging chefs who will be featured by the NAC over the coming year. He is preparing a meal with the NAC’s Executive Chef Kenton Leier that people will be able to taste Sept. 12 and his ideas will be part of the menu at the renewed 1 Elgin restaurant (formerly Le Cafe) for about the next two months, until Nov. 23. 1 Elgin has been renovated over the summer and it too will be unveiled on Friday.

Francis said he grew up, in the main, off reserve and he said he lost a sense of his roots. That disconnection has prompted what he calls his “reconciliation” work today.

“Right now I am trying to forge our culinary identity outside of colonialism and residential school. I have cooked bannock maybe twice in my life. I am probably the biggest bannock racist you’ll ever meet.”

Bannock was brought to Canada and the north by Scottish traders. Francis says it’s part of the reason there is a diabetes epidemic in the North.

Indigenous food in recent centuries has been heavily influenced by the waves of western immigration, he said.

“Now I want to move on past that.” So he is looking at ingredients that are coming from off the land, and that existed pre-contact with Europeans in 1492.

“I want to rewrite the whole agenda when it comes to Indigenous cuisine.” That means rediscovering those ingredients and recipes. “That’s the path that I am on now,” he said. That’s where projects such as the documentary series Red Chef Revival comes in.

“What people often do is lump Indigenous food into one big melting pot and that’s Indian taco,” he said. “There are some many moving parts from region to region,” what he is talking about, he said, is the original terroir of Turtle Island.

He said he has recently spent time on Kendall Island in the Northwest Territories. It’s situated in the Mackenzie River delta. When he was there he was cooking local root vegetables. He also tried some Beluga whale which had been taken by the people. He filmed it all.

At Six Nations, this time of year the harvest is in full swing with root vegetables on the table. Also on the menu is deer, walleye, perch and other game. One very important ingredient is white corn. “It’s like life for the Iroquois.” It is used in a lot of ceremonies. And it’s part of the menu he has worked on with the NAC.

Francis believes Indigenous food is “rooted in trauma. There is nothing good about some of its history. I want to focus on some positives.” That is where a lot of his own reconciliation with himself and his heritage comes from.

He believed that originally he was “missing the mark.” By that he means he wasn’t making his journey with food a personal one.

He believes that most of what he does is illegal as it involves eating animals such as the beluga whale. He feels this in necessary. “It makes it anti-genocidal. It is ancestral food. We are in 2019 and I have to hide the fact that I serve a moose?”

The first inkling of a path forward when he braised some short ribs in cooling school.

“I didn’t think something so humble as a tough short rib and turning it into something remarkable” was possible. That was an eye opener.

After leaving school, he trained in important restaurants in New York, Toronto and Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, and then one day he was hit by a car in 2010. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He got out of hospital when he reflected on his work as a chef, and that pushed him to go deeper into the history of Indigenous food culture.

Since then I haven’t worked for anyone else.

The NAC collaboration has been going on for a year. But his involvement in the Mòshkamo event has become a way to get his message out.

The idea of this chef’s series, says Nelson Borges, is that the culinary arts are as much an art form as dance, theatre and music. This will on the NAC’s “newest stage,” he added. The idea is to give emerging food artists a chance to showcase their regions, their ideas on a national platform.

The other three chefs are:

• Ryan Hotchkiss, Bündok Restaurant, Edmonton. He’ll be here in January.
• Helena Loureiro, Portus360 Restaurant, Montreal (March).
• Jonathan Gushue, Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island, Newfoundland (May).

Next up for Francis will be the opening of his restaurant outside Montreal on the Mohawk community of Kahnawake next spring. The destination restaurant will be called 7th Fire based on Indigenous prophecies. He promises an Indigenous “dining experience like no other.

He’s also writing a cookbook memoir called Born Again Savage which opens with a time Francis spent on the downtown east side of Vancouver where he battled some demons. He was working as a chef there after he was the first Indigenous chef to ever appear on the Top Chef program. He was a finalist. Success proved to be hard to handle however.

He says today that food has saved his life.

Celebratory Dinner of Indigenous Culinary Tradition: A Guided Tasting
With Chef Rich Francis and NAC Executive Chef Kenton Leier
Where: Canada Room, National Arts Centre
When: Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.