TORONTO - Most people purchase their food at the grocery store without giving much thought to where it comes from. But in TV's "Untamed Gourmet," viewers can watch a meal evolve from inspiration to collection of fresh local ingredients to preparation — all within the natural landscape.
The documentary series, the inspiration of co-creators Cary Ciesielski and Ian Toews, explores the connection between food and different regions of the country and how that collaborative knowledge has always been at the forefront of Canada's First Nations peoples. The second season starts Tuesday on APTN.
Ciesielski's idea was to take chefs into nature and find inspiration and food where it began: with Canada's original purveyors of the local food movement, said Toews, who is also executive producer of the show.
"We realized there's this really great aboriginal story in there," Toews said from outside Regina, where he was filming an unrelated program. "Anybody who travels Canada in the wilderness historically and currently really has great contact with aboriginal people because they're the ones that are most often out in the wilderness.
"That's how this country was formed," he added, with the First Nations people teaching European settlers where the food was and how to survive.
In each of the six episodes, a chef is accompanied by a guide to locations where they collect fresh ingredients from forest, field and water. There is interaction with local First Nations people and viewers learn about the traditions and history of the people in the area. Then a meal is prepared in the natural setting.
"Because it's a documentary we want chefs that do this, that work in nature and find wild food and have connections to other people so we sought out those kinds of chefs," said Toews. "We found some of the top chefs in Canada through that process ... checked out their menus, read their philosophy, contacted them."
Nothing is held back for the cameras. "It's an interesting show because there's animals being killed. There's hunting. There's fish being gutted," said Toews. "This is for real. It's not just some food you pick up at a meat-packing place."
Even though the show focuses on a return to the land, modern technology still comes into play. In the season premiere, chef Aaron Bear Robe, who has a restaurant in Toronto, forages and fishes for rainbow trout on the escarpment around Collingwood, Ont., with guide Mark Eber. As they're gathering garlic mustard, they tweet their whereabouts so others can take advantage of their find. Bear Robe marvels at how they can discover such delicacies just three hours from the city.
"They're very urban guys; they're downtown Toronto guys," said Toews. "They're tapped into their phones. One guy had two telephones. They're really high-level technology communicator-type guys ... But it's interesting to see that you can still have those two lifestyles meet.
"You can still be out in the forest and appreciate it and get all the good that you can out of it, but at the same time be a kind of modern technologically advanced person."
Bear Robe, who sources local and regional ingredients for his aboriginal-themed Keriwa Cafe, wraps freshly caught rainbow trout in leek leaves to cook it, then serves it with ginger and leek pesto on a birchbark "plate." A salad is made with wild foraged shoots and herbs and topped with a wild leek vinaigrette, and he concocts spruce tip infused sabayon with wild rhubarb syrup.
Another episode highlights Dolly McRae and Annie Watts, a mother-daughter team of chefs and cookbook authors who forage for wild ingredients near their home in Port Alberni, B.C., and create a traditional community feast over an open fire. Yellowknife chef Pierre LePage combines foraged blueberries, fireweed and morel mushrooms with caribou and muskox meat. Other episodes take place in B.C.'s Cowichan Valley and the province's interior, as well as on Prince Edward Island.
Foraging is catching on among many who seek the freshest food, but the need for sustainability is stressed by the guides and chefs. Toews suggests a stewardship program or regulations to prevent overharvesting of such crops as fiddleheads, wild beets (ramps) and wild ginger.
Participants in "Untamed Gourmet" are humbled by what nature has to offer and strive to honour the ingredients when preparing them.
"This is how food happens," said Toews. "It's been gathered and eaten by humans for millennia. It shouldn't be something that's surprising, but in the last 50 to 80 years we've gotten away from that a bit.
"Hopefully people can regain an appreciation for where the food comes from."