I grew up cooking with family, foraging for wild edibles to supplement our diet. We grew a large garden, this is where many of fondest memories took place as a child; digging potatoes or snapping beans. There were also trips to go fishing stocking up coolers and late night cleaning. I learned to fish with nets, and jig frogs. We spent time on the prairies out west, observing game animals year round. My father and grandfather would talk about what we had seen, explaining the movements by relating to what the weather was going to do or what part of the cycles in life were occurring at that moment.
When I was young, I never thought that I would want to work in a kitchen. My father was a pastry chef and grandfather was a baker I enjoyed watching their knowledge in action, but I never had a desire to cook professionally. Nor did I have any idea what that looked like. For me food was something sacred part of our family and communities traditions. Whether it be rural farm life or living in the bush.
I took my first job washing dishes when I was in high school, only because I could walk, even though it took me 20 minutes. At this restaurant, I learned basic skills for commercial kitchens and techniques that are more advanced. The first chef I worked for was surprised because I knew how to work decently well in a kitchen. Most 15 year olds do not know the difference between knifes in the kitchen. Here I grew, I worked my way up to prep cook, working on cold foods, and eventually working on the line. This is also where I had the opportunity to cook for the Office of the President of the United States. This event’s security scared me so much but I enjoyed the work.
I went to college seeking a B.A. in Anthropology, I thought I could always fall back on my cooking experience if I needed to. At college, I worked with chefs from all over the world, I learned new techniques and found that the foods I grew up with had a place on the table in many different forms.
I dropped out of college and worked in a couple different industries trying to get my own catering company off the ground. I eventually did, catering events for foreign dignitaries from the United Nations and feeding the Longest Walkers. I traveled all over the country cooking food I loved and found people loved it too.
After running my own catering company, I decided to hang it up and go back to school to focus on a “real job,” I tried but was called back to cooking.
I moved half way across the country and applied for a kitchen manager position, I got it and stayed for five years even receiving an Executive Coat while I was there. The day I was presented my Executive Coat was like a graduation. I had worked hard for this recognition and enjoyed it, I enjoyed that little restaurant so much. A Michelin star reviewer used to come in on a regular basis just to eat, sometimes my dishes would be outlandish. He would give his insights and my technique got more refined, I found the place where fine dining meets home cooking.
I decided to go back to school, again, this time for something that I was inspired to use, Ojibwemowin. I came to Lac Courte Oreilles; enrolled in school and got a job in the first week I was here. I worked at the casino and found wonderful people who made fantastic and wonderful food. I worked for a time at a local restaurant that predominantly served vacationers. At all of these places I enjoyed the work, but it was not until later that I realized what I was searching for.
I was invited to teach at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, workshops of things I learned while growing up. I enjoyed sharing these stories and experiences and helping people find something they were missing. After a few years I ran out of Ojibwemowin classes, I had a loss in my life. Then one day there was a posting for the culinary instructor position, I was not going to go for it, but I eventually did. I got it. I found that what I was missing was sharing this part of my life and experience. I have spent a lifetime acquiring experiences and stories to share, and now have the opportunity to share and help rebuild a perspective of native food and lifeways. This is contact again; but this time we get to set the table.
Our food, our relationships, center of the plate; we have the opportunity to display what we have and what we can become though food. Every time I fillet out a fish, I relive all the late nights in the garage growing up cleaning fish. Through this retelling, we bring these spirits of thought and memory back to the dish which is plated, who meets the taster. This convergence of the taster’s own stories and memories create a space where only stories can live. This connection is what I hope to impart in each of our students that grow through our Indigenous Culinary Program.
As our program grows, we can create more experiences like those I had growing up or have found as I have grown as a chef.
Mii iw minik igo waa-ikidoyaan.
Learn more about the Indinious Culinary Arts Program here: https://www.lco.edu/indigenous-culinary-arts-certificat