As a contestant on Top Chef Canada, Rich Francis wore his Aboriginal heritage on his sleeve — literally. While all the kitchen hopefuls wore a Canadian flag patch at the left shoulder of their cooking attire, Francis added the flag of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy, which is based on the Hiawatha Wampum Belt.
It was an appropriate symbolic touch — Francis, Tetlit Gwich’in and Tuscarora, is a passionate advocate of Aboriginal cuisine, and the dishes he prepared for the show were in line with his desire to cook for the present-day with a "pre-contact" philosophy. Francis advocates for what he calls Modern Indigenous Cuisine.
Francis made the final three, but did not win the competition, which broadcast its finale on Monday night. Nonetheless, having traditional cooking demonstrated — and well received — on the national stage in Canada was a unique achievement. Francis shared his thoughts on what he does with ICTMN.
What challenges do you face in the mission you have given yourself — cooking with a Native influence and principles in modern times?
The biggest problem I came across was the lingering question I had inside myself “are they ready for Modern Indigenous Cuisine, are they ready for something they don’t have a reference for, how will it be perceived, how can I do this successfully?” Not realizing that those questions were self serving, I silenced my mind and began to cook not thinking. I truly believe the time is here and now. This is the result.
Does that mission, and being something of an unknown quantity, give you any advantages in the restaurant business? Did it give you advantages on Top Chef Canada?
It totally does. People are intrigued by what people have to offer, even more so if its unique and unheard of. Or if there’s an old paradigm — bannock, pemmican, etc. — and someone challenges it, as I do with Modern Indigenous Cuisine, people will notice. They or may not accept it, but they’ll notice.
What sort of Aboriginal dishes did you grow up eating that inspired you to be a chef?
The taste and smells of growing up in Fort McPherson are with me for life. There was always an abundance of dry meat, caribou, dry fish, bone marrow, berries and lidii tea. As basic as it sounds these are the foundation of my food. I use these to trigger memory and emotion. And that’s what I love about what I do, is seeing people's reaction when I present something that looks brand new but is so familiar to them, and they can’t figure out what it is, then a light turns on in them and you see the awe or silence of maybe their childhood or a loved one. They are satisfied, and I have succeeded as a chef. I live for that reaction.
What Top Chef dishes are you proudest of?
The pickerel dish from "Restaurant Wars" and the musk ox in the finale.
Do you feel the judges were open-minded about your Modern Aboriginal Cuisine concept?
I feel that I had to start someplace in putting forth my concept, it just happened to be Top Chef Canada. Anytime you bring something new to the table, it's up for criticism, which I thrive on to make me grow and evolve. I think I timed it perfectly — doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready for it, but it’s here now and that’s what important to me. My cuisine now has a voice. And now I expand from here.
Do you feel that through this show or your real-life restaurant business you are an ambassador for Aboriginal cuisine?
Everything I do as a chef is to contribute or benefit First Nation Cuisine as a whole. If that makes me an ambassador, then so be it. I just feel it’s a really exciting time for our food. My presence on Top Chef Canada was to promote my concept and prove to that our food belongs up there with the other global cuisines.
To keep track of the further adventures of Rich Francis, visit the Facebook page for Aboriginal Culinary Concepts.