Red Chef Revival’s Rich Francis on the Future of Indigenous Food in Canada

Haudenosaunee chef Rich Francis worked the fine–dining circuit and became the first Indigenous chef to compete and place on Top Chef Canada (Season 4). But it wasn’t until he was laid up for six months following a car accident in 2010 that his life’s path became clear: “re–write the whole agenda of colonialized Indigenous food.” Francis stars in the Storyhive series Red Chef Revival, which explores how Indigenous culture is being reclaimed and reinvented through food. We sat down with the chef and restaurateur before a trip to Toronto for the screening of the third episode of Red Chef Revival at the inaugural Toronto Food Film Fest in October 2019.

enRoute What is Indigenous cuisine and what are the misconceptions surrounding it?

Rich Francis I’m still trying to define what it is as I continue on my healing journey of dismantling the systems of oppression that have kept us where we are for far too long. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it’s not. In the restaurant I’m opening on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory next year there will be no bannock, for example, because that’s part of the colonial system. It’s food that is rooted in trauma. It’s not good for our health, but people love it. It soothes and comforts us, but then so do drugs and alcohol.

January 2, 2020
Rich Francis in front of the cameras for his show Red Chef Revival

Photo: Rich Francis

ER How do you hope this show will change people's understanding of Indigenous cuisine?

RF I hope Red Chef Revival changes the hearts and minds of people who are willing to listen and learn from Indigenous voices, so they become part of removing the stigma attached to Indigenous food. In the first episode I visit the Osoyoos Indian Reserve in B.C. We wanted to rediscover “survival food,” that Indigenous people ate during times of starvation. That meant cooking cougar, prickly pear cactus and bitterroot. The food has to tell a story and honour our traditions. People talk about terroir, but this is the ultimate terroir – we cooked with food from 100 metres from where we stood.

ER What inspired you to be part of this project?

RF I wanted to use my own voice, experience, knowledge and intuition to forecast where we can take Indigenous food. But in order to reinvent it, you first have to rediscover it. One of my signature dishes is salmon cured with the four plants of the Indigenous medicine wheel: cedar, sweet grass, sage and tobacco. I want to give people a palate reference for those four flavours.

ER What is the future of Indigenous food in Canada?

RF I see it as getting our backstory from our Indigenous elders about foods they ate before colonialism and before the residential schools. Food has an amazing ability to heal. I want to carve out a new identity for ourselves, no longer calling it “Canadian” food, but reclaiming what was always ours, on Turtle Island. Right now, it’s very much a resistance cuisine, but I see it as ultimately healing for the rest of Canada.

Maple cedar tea splashed fire cooked salmon

Photo: Rich Francis

ER Why is it important to give Indigenous chefs and cuisine a platform?

RF Because we have our own voice, land and food, and want to use those to tell our story. Because we’re no longer just chefs, we’ve become fire carriers, knowledge keepers for our people.

ER How can Canadians do a better job of giving you a platform?

RF Collaboration is key right now, and it’s just a matter of getting the rest of Canada on board to help us forge identities outside of racism and colonialism. As Canadians learn more about Indigenous food and life, I hope they wil] become involved in Indigenous issues: joining protests against global warming or the pipeline in B.C. or learning about the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

ER Who are the people who inspire you in the world of Indigenous cuisine

RF It’s not just chefs, but Indigenous food sovereignists on Turtle Island, the next generation, and especially our Indigenous women. They are the matriarchs and our food protectors, and our future lies with them. My mentor, Bertha Skye, is a chef and educator and a strong matriarch based in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario. She kicked ass at the international Culinary Olympics and is bringing aboriginal haute cuisine to the table. She paved the way for Indigenous chefs today.