Innu chef and TV host pens cookbook on First Nations cuisine

The Canadian Press ~ The News
Published on November 17, 2009

MONTREAL - Finding the meat for some of Manuel Kak'wa Kurtness' recipes may prove a challenge for city dwellers. Where, for example, does an urbanite rustle up the key ingredient for his beaver with yogurt and paprika?
"It's six degrees of separation," said the Innu chef. "Everyone knows a hunter. Ask around. Someone will have beaver."
The semi-aquatic animal's meat apparently has a clean flavour, smells a little like game or aged Angus beef, tends to be fatty, he notes, and can be prepared like a confit of duck.
His recipes also feature fiddleheads, cranberries, maple syrup, game meats and salmon, and they champion local, sustainable produce.
It's traditional cooking with a modern twist: a fusion of indigenous and international cuisines, like his recipe for a pulled goose sandwich that mixes a southern dish with northern ingredients.
"We're not asking people to get into their canoe and to pull out their bow-and-arrow," he said, arguing it's natural for a cuisine to evolve.
"There's a constant creativity."
Kurtness still lives in the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh where he grew up, on the shores of Lac-Saint-Jean, 250 kilometres north of Quebec City.
He remembers fishing for Atlantic freshwater salmon in the lake's waters with his father when he was four or five years old.
"It's the king of our lake," he said, recalling how they would barbecue the salmon on the beach for supper - the best meals of his youth.
"It was more than learning how to fish. It was my first job and formed my relationship with my father."
The lake, the powwows and the Makushams - feasts in the Innu culture celebrating a hunt - sparked the passion for his craft.
Kurtness believes a cuisine is more than an individual dish: the culture surrounding the culinary tradition is as important to understanding Aboriginal cooking as the recipes themselves.
This is a strong theme in his newly released book, "Pachamama: Cuisine des premieres nations" ("Pachamama: First Nations Cuisine"). Each chapter introduces and traces the history of one of 11 Quebec and Ontario First Nations communities whose recipes are featured in the book.
Still, the 40-year-old chef says indigenous cooking isn't about looking backward - but about looking toward "the source."
For native peoples, animal migrations and the seasons dictated the rhythm of life and weather formed the menu, bringing game in the winter, fish in the summer and berries in the early fall, says Kurtness.
Despite coming to cooking late in the game - he graduated from a professional culinary arts program just four years ago - he's notched a series of successes.
He now hosts a show on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that runs across the country and will soon start its second season.
The chef also won the Sandy Sanderson Award in 2008 from the Canadian Culinary Federation and jetted to Cannes last year to cook a dinner of First Nations cuisine for local dignitaries.
And a restaurant near Lac-Saint-Jean is in the works.
But Kurtness laughs off the suggestion he's turning into a celebrity chef.
"I'm more (the) organic-creative-culinary type," he said.
Nor does Kurtness shy away from his community's problems. He worries about obesity on the reserves and decries the junk food that's created unprecedented levels of diabetes among aboriginals.
"We've lost our link with food," he said.
He's also ready to criticize the stereotyping of indigenous culture, slamming Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean's sampling of fresh seal heart earlier this year as nothing more than a successful political stunt.
"It made us look bloodthirsty," he said. "Like we only ate raw meat."
Still, Kurtness believes Canadians are opening up to native cultures and philosophies and forgetting historic disputes he feels soured relationships.