Like many chefs, Norma Condo’s first memories in the kitchen date back to childhood. Growing up in a large Indigenous family in the Gaspésie, Condo learned how to cook traditional Mi’kmaq meals passed down through her grandmother.
“My grandma had 15 kids. Every Sunday she would cook a traditional meal. I was so excited for that day because I knew I got to help her out,” Condo reflects, “When I had access to the kitchen, I was so happy.”
For Condo, it was her grandmother’s stories and traditions that inspired her to ultimately pursue a career in the culinary field. Having tried her hand at other work, she realized that she wasn’t enjoying herself. So, the switch into cooking seemed as natural as any.
She enrolled in culinary school in Montreal, with the ultimate goal was always to open up her own restaurant. But rather than leaning on French cuisine and techniques (commonplace in Quebec’s culinary schools) or inspiration from worldly travels, she knew she wanted to stay true to her roots.
“I knew that if I was going to do it, it was going to be Indigenous,” Condo says.
Fast forward to 2019 and she has accomplished just that, with her business Miqmak Catering Indigenous Kitchen. She began it as a catering company in November 2018 in Pierrefonds in the West Island, but as of this summer, diners can now enjoy her specialities at her sit-down restaurant — dishes include a three sisters casserole with beans, corn, and squash, wild rice, bannock, and more. The reception, she describes, has been overwhelmingly positive thus far.
“People love Indigenous food,” Condo says, “When I started catering, I didn’t think that people would approach me so quickly about what I do. My catering service started from home, but it got too busy and I had no choice but to get a commercial kitchen. I stumbled a lot, but never gave up.”
It’s also Montreal’s first permanent restaurant dedicated to Indigenous cuisine — the only other establishment to focus on Indigenous food in recent years has been Roundhouse Café in downtown Montreal’s Cabot Square. However, it only operates in warmer months, and while it’s Indigenous-operated, it’s owned by nonprofit group L’Itinéraire.
As to her specialities, Condo enjoys working with moose meat, but due to regulations prohibiting the sale of wild game in restaurants, she has chosen to focus on salmon as a staple protein. It’s an ingredient that she grew up fishing for; her preferred preparation for it involves steaming it in a cedar-infused broth.
Condo adds that the majority of her recipes are made natural, Canadian ingredients, even to the point where she has chosen to favour seasonings like sage and cedar over salt and pepper.
Her rationale behind this choice isn’t just to fit in with a “locavore” mentality. “Diabetes is very common in Indigenous communities,” she explains, “I want to create dishes for people that are just like their favourites, but better for them.”
In this way and others, giving back to her community is at the heart of what Condo does. She happily returns to Gaspésie to cater for her community, a no-brainer, despite the ten-hour drive.
“That’s where I’m from; of course, I’m going to give back. If it wasn’t for my community and my people, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Not only does Condo honour where she comes from, she also looks to the future. Taking a pause during our interview to provide instruction to one of her kids who is helping in the kitchen for the summer. She jokes that it reminds her of when she was their age. “This is your future,” Condo says, “I’m building this for you so I can pass it down.”
As the first Indigenous-owned restaurant on the island of Montreal, Condo notes that it’s just a matter of time before more start to open.
“Indigenous restaurants are trending in Canada,” she says, “People want to know what we have, what we grew up eating, how we cook it. I don’t mind sharing my history and my background. I’m not going to hold back.”
You can hold her to that. With hopes to open up another restaurant downtown within the next year and upcoming events co-hosted with the likes of celebrity chef, Chuck Hughes, Condo has found her métier.