Two years ago, Kate Bouska wasn’t sure if she’d ever see her dream of owning a food truck come true. The woman, from Baker Lake, Nunavut had moved to Ottawa to pursue her love of cooking, but found herself battling depression, struggling financially and falling behind in school. Eventually she dropped out of her chef training program, but Bouska’s culinary ambitions didn’t end there.
This 20-year-old woman is one of 17 students enrolled in Algonquin College’s new indigenous cooking pre-apprenticeship program. The program is offered free, thanks to a grant from the Ontario government, and provides training for the next generation of young, indigenous Canadian chefs. In the first few weeks, Bouska’s already learning food theory, knife and presentation skills, as well as how to cook traditional indigenous cuisines from communities across Canada.
“When I found out about this course it was the answer to my dreams,” Bouska says. “The program isn’t quite what I had expected but it is interesting to learn all types of First Nations food.”
The culinary school is the brainchild of Wes Wilkinson, the program’s academic manager, who saw a disconnect between aboriginal students and the curriculum in some culinary programs.
“We hired all indigenous instructors and indigenous consultants to help with the program’s development,” says Wilkinson, who wanted to ensure students were learning from Canada’s best chefs. “Instructors are everything from Algonquin, to Mohawk to Cree to from Nunavut.”
The result is a curriculum food lovers would be excited to taste. Jerome Brasser, executive chef at Ottawa’s Wabano Centre, leads the six-hour cooking class on Fridays, where he, with the help of guest instructors, teach students how to make everything from fry bread, to hominy corn to Arctic char gravlax.
“Last week we made three different types of bannock. We made cinnamon brown sugar bannock, plain bannock and blueberry bannock. We’re having a lot of fun and the students are really enjoying it,” says Brasser. “I try to come up with traditional recipes and teach them the basics too.”
Eager young chefs will also learn how to skin and cook beaver, smoke goose and rabbit over the campfire and learn how to cook wild game such as venison, bison and elk.
“Some of my previous students, who have graduated from the culinary course, have offered to teach as well, since they came from reserves and are living in Ottawa. They have jobs here now and are really interested in teaching the young folks their processes.”
The semester culminates with the entire class running the kitchen at the campus’ Restaurant International — an experience that will put their culinary skills to the test. It’s this high-stakes environment that Bouska looks forward to the most.
“It’s exciting. The highlight is learning how to plate,” says Bouska. “The precise cuts are the most difficult.”
It’s seeing students like Bouska find work at the end of their 8-week placement that will be the true marker of the program’s success for Wilkinson.
“Ultimately this is what this is all about,” says Wilkinson, who is excited to see students, who come from communities across Canada, thrive.
For Bousa, she still has her eye on opening a food truck with her friend, with plans on using her cooking school experience to create an indigenous menu.
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