Montreal-based chef George Lenser may have spent two years as a garde-manger at Joe Beef, but you can’t find food that represents his culture anywhere in town — that’s because Montreal has not a single restaurant dedicated to any kind of First Nations cuisine.
Lenser says Montreal is behind other Canadian cities in developing an Indigenous food scene: Toronto has at least two dedicated restaurants, Edmonton and Vancouver have them too. Montreal has Round House Café, a small stand in Cabot Square operated by homeless Indigenous staff (Lenser may help the café redo its menu soon).
But there’s hope: Lenser says he notices a resurgence in interest in Indigenous cuisines at present — Lenser one day hopes to open a restaurant (although possibly outside Montreal), and says he is called on for events that showcase different Indigenous foods more often. It’s a good thing, because much of the knowledge of Indigenous culinary traditions was lost under Canada’s residential school system, where First Nations children were forced into boarding schools and deprived of exposure to their own cultures, food included.
“I think that’s why there’s a lot of people trying to understand what our food is because they lost that knowledge about how to prepare what their parents or grandparents made, it’s been misplaced,” explains Lenser.
Lenser is part Wet’suwet’en, Nisga’a, and Squamish — all west coast nations — so while he’s more grounded in culinary traditions from back home (including a lot of fish), he’s familiar with much more beyond that (this is partly because some ingredients, such as Oolichan grease, a Nisga’a fermented fish oil, can be difficult to get access to). At a tasting he’s presenting this Friday (June 2), Lenser says he’ll be doing “pan-Indian” food.
That includes a version of the traditional Mohawk dish Three Sisters, a stew often made with deer or moose meat (at the request of arts organization Le Milieu, who are hosting the event, Lenser will cook all-vegetarian dishes).
“I’m going to be pickling the corn, roasting the squash and using fava beans and making a sage vinaigrette.”
That’ll be followed up by organic bannock madeleines, served with a smoked crème fraîche — while Lenser admits dairy is not traditional at all, but still relevant to Indigenous history.
“A lot of residential schools would have children work on farms to feed the teachers … there’s a story of one boy in charge of milking the cows, and separating the parts used to make cream. Then he’d sneak it away in a bottle, put it in a shoe and hobble back to his room and hide that bottle in another other shoe and go back to work.
“The the next day he’d open up his shoe and sneak it into the cafeteria and pour that aged cream [now crème fraîche] into his oatmeal after it had been sitting around for 24 hours.”
Lenser considers such a dish to be food that demonstrates the experience of being colonized.
Also on the menu is one dish representing Lenser’s home — a forest gnocchi “to show off the Boreale forest where I’m from on the west coast, to show off mushrooms and the vegetation there.” There’ll also be a rhubarb tart with roasted wild rice, representing swampier territory in central Canada.
Lenser’s food will be available at the Écomusée du fier monde on Amherst Street this Friday, from 4 to 9 p.m. — the full menu is $22, and individual dishes are $2 to $10.