Sheila Flaherty and Siobhan Detkavich on Reclaiming Indigenous Culture Through Food

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A conversation about food, culture and the future of Indigenous cuisine with two of the chefs leading the way.

Sheila Flaherty and Siobhan Detkavich live in opposite parts of the country – Flaherty in Iqaluit and Detkavich in Kelowna – and, at 53 and 22, are at different stages in their careers. And yet, the two chefs share a passion for reclaiming Indigenous culture through their palates. An ambassador of Inuit cuisine, Flaherty brought her signature Arctic char sushi to the MasterChef Canada kitchen as a competitor on season 4, was a 2020‑21 resident chef at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and offers inuksiutit menus through her culinary tourism business, sijjakkut. Detkavich, one of the youngest Red Seal chefs in the country and, until recently, chef de partie at the Terrace Restauarant at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, is also a reality cooking show alum: The first Indigenous woman to appear on Top Chef Canada, she showcased traditional coastal ingredients like salal berries in the series’ latest season. We got Flaherty and Detkavich together to share their journeys and where they’re headed next.

December 9, 2021

Their Backstories

Sheila Flaherty When I was a girl, my parents divorced and my dad had custody of my sister and me. To learn to cook well for us, he took a French cuisine course – I grew up in Ottawa with dishes like vichyssoise (still one of my favourite soups) and duck a l’orange. My passion for cooking came from him; I just I amped it up when I made Iqaluit my home in 2010. There are only three restaurants here and all serve the usual Canadian fare. I quickly discovered that there’s a demand for Inuit dishes and I’m now the chef and founder of sijjakkut, which offers Inuit foods in Iqaluit, but will eventually be a 4,000‑square‑foot facility with a commercial kitchen and four‑room B&B.

Siobhan Detkavich At 15, I moved from Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, to Oliver, a small town in the South Okanagan. When I started at the local high school, I was put into a senior foods class and the career counsellor came in and asked, “Who wants to leave high school for a year?” To backtrack: I never saw myself cooking. I’d set all my courses up; I was going to go to medical school to be an orthopaedic or cardiothoracic surgeon. And I was the pickiest child growing up, all Kraft Dinner and chicken nuggets. But I thought, sure, let’s try it. I drove an hour and a half (each way) to culinary school in Kelowna and started apprenticing at Terrafina at Hester Creek Winery. Within my first year of culinary school, I did 13 competitions. Seeing other chefs’ passion and realizing this industry is one where I’ll always be learning drew me in. I got my Red Seal at 18 and then Top Chef Canada came around, and here I am.

Related: Inside Qaumajuq, Canada’s Shining New Home for Inuit Art

illustration of Sheila Flaherty and Siobhan Detkavich
Sheila Flaherty (left) and Siobhan Detkavich.

Reclaiming Their Culinary Histories

Siobhan Detkavich I didn’t really have an understanding of Indigenous cooking until I filmed the docuseries Red Chef Revival with Rich Francis in 2017. From there, because I don’t know much about my mom’s family, from the Cowichan Tribes, I started learning the history of the Osoyoos Indian Band, which has played a big role in my life. A lot of my family went to residential school, so I never got to understand who we were and where I came from. But I just finished filming a project where we went to the coast, and I reconnected with some family and did some foraging. I don’t even think all Indigenous chefs really know how to define Indigenous cuisine, but my view is that it’s about food from the land and sustainability. And it’s so important to uphold that, not only for Indigenous culture, but because sustainable food is the food of the future.

Sheila Flaherty My late mom was a residential school survivor as well. And my husband Johnny was born and raised in Grise Fiord, but his family was relocated there by the Canadian government from Inukjuak, Nunavik, or Northern Quebec, in the 1950s. We may have been relocated, we may be residential school survivors, but one thing that’s true in Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homelands, is that we’ve always had access to our food sources; our food is the core of our Inuit culture. I moved here in May 2010 with Johnny – he tried to live with me in Ottawa for a couple years, but he missed hunting. I wasn’t raised that way, but a lot of Inuit are. Now, we go out hunting and harvesting every chance we get. With sijjakkut offering Inuit dishes, it’s not just the food itself, it’s the direct connection to the land, the nuna, and the ocean, the tariuq.

Related: Why Throat Singer Shina Novalinga is Sharing Her Inuit Culture on TikTok

Travel and Bringing People Together

Siobhan Detkavich I’ve done a fair amount of travelling – Australia, Fiji, quite a bit of Europe, the CaribbeanMexico. But I’d love to travel in more of a food sense and experience authentic cuisine in each place – like Italy, which is a big culinary influence for me. Food fascinates me because it tells a story. I want to immerse myself into more cultures, to really understand and appreciate what food is and how it brings people together.

Sheila Flaherty I’m not as well travelled, but in November 2019 I had the opportunity to go to Nuuk, Greenland. I spent eight days in the kitchen with three Nordic chefs and a Greenlandic chef working with seal meat. As I offer more menus with sijjakkut, I have my memories from Nuuk to help guide me in creating new fusion dishes. But, for me, instead of travelling to other places, I want more people to come to us and try Inuit food. With the sijjakkut experience, which will mimic the intimacy of Inuit life, we hope to attract a new type of traveller to Nunavut.

Salal Berries, Cacti and Arctic Char

Siobhan Detkavich I’m still discovering my traditional ingredients. One food I was introduced to recently, by Haida Gwaii Elders, is salal berries. They look like blueberries and their flavour is like a crossbreed between blackberries and blueberries. Here in the Interior, in part of the only desert in Canada, we have cacti everywhere. When I was filming Red Chef Revival, I was shown this breed called prickly pear. You just char them to get the little burrs off and then, because the texture is like aloe inside, they pick up flavour easily; I love incorporating them if I’m competing. I also love foraging for mushrooms; there are so many beautiful varieties out there if you know what you’re looking for.

Sheila Flaherty Iqaluit is Inuktitut for “the place of many Arctic char.” I love working with Arctic char; it’s just a beautiful, fatty, delicious meat. We go on two long trips each year; our springtime trip is a 200‑mile snowmobile trek to a small glacier‑fed lake in the Cumberland Sound area. This year we used a kakivak, which is a traditional Inuit spear, and it’s so addictive.

Related: Canada’s Best New Restaurants 2021

“It’s about breaking past the colonialism and bringing back the culture.” – Siobhan Detkavich

The Future of Indigenous Food

Sheila Flaherty More and more, people want to know where their food comes from, and they want an authentic experience. And that’s us, and every other Indigenous chef out there providing these taste of place dishes. Before I applied to MasterChef, my husband and I were talking about how if I made it on the show, even if I got eliminated – which I was, in the first round – it would raise the profile of Inuit food. And now, years later, I’m seeing all these people in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories cooking and posting on CBC North’s recipe group on Facebook. It’s important to support our restaurant industry, but it’s also important not to be shy to make something homemade and experiment ourselves. The health of our communities is through our food.

Siobhan Detkavich With everything that’s coming to light right now with Indigenous communities, we need to highlight the beauty, which includes our food. It’s about breaking past the colonialism and bringing back the culture; it’s important for people to open their palates and get educated. Food is one of those things that can draw people together. And I hope that in moving Indigenous food into the limelight it can raise awareness and provide more support for communities that need it.