Chef George Lenser, Wet’suwet’en, Nisga’a and Squamish, presided over the food kiosk at this year’s Montreal First Peoples Festival. His culinary mission: to bring indigenous food to this French-speaking city that’s just over the U.S.–Canada border. Having attended the festival last year, the chef, originally from British Columbia, was eager to showcase his own heritage, honor that of the First Nations of Quebec, and show Canadians that First Nations people are alive, well, and chowing down. Indian Country Media Network caught up with him as the festival ramped up in early August.
What inspired your offerings here at the festival?
A mixture between trying to represent back home and trying to represent the people who are from this territory, and mixing it with how can I make it as fast as I can. And try and make it as easy on myself as possible. So I just ended up making something like what my grandma would make me for lunch or something.
How did you learn about the foods from this region?
I’ve been here for three years. I’ve been learning just through hanging out a lot of Haudenosaunee Mohawk people, have gained friends and relationships, and through reading as well.
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What role can food have in educating the ‘mainstream’ and just broadening awareness in general?
I think food has almost like a power of summoning a presence, even if it’s someone who’s passed away. My favorite food is anything my mom used to cook me. So it has that strength already. A lot of people already think that Native people are dead, or they’re on these reserves, so it’s that much more of showing that indigenous people are here even in your city, even in your society. So I feel like it shows that much more.
Can you name some of the dishes and what the significance is?
For the granma’s lunch one, there’s a salmon sandwich on there. My grandma used to get a whole bunch of salmon given to her by relatives, and she’d just butcher it all and can it all and store it for everyone. She was just very good at it. She used to work at a cannery way back in the ‘70s, 80s, so she was very very good at butchering and cutting salmon and all that. So what she’d always do is just take salmon out of the jars, and chop up some onions, and mix mayonnaise with the salmon and just put it on wonder bread, white bread, and then that would be our sandwich. So I just made a fancier version of what my grandma used to make.
And then for the Haudenosaunee kind of homage I put the potato salad on the menu but garnished with the three sisters. So I got pickled corn, I roasted squash, and I blanched some green and yellow beans. I put dots of pickled mustard seeds and dijon mustard—fancied it up a little bit. Very herby.
Yes. It’s selling a lot, actually. I’m actually a little bit stressed out over that because it’s a lot of chopping preparation. And that one’s selling a lot. It’s the most labor-intensive one, and it’s selling a lot. I thought it was gonna be like, the salad—usually anywhere you go, the salad is not the big seller. It’s the protein.
We still have the elk sausage, but it’s kind of indigenized, I guess. I just made like a guajillo ketchup—it’s more representing people down south, so it’s kind of like utilizing whatever flavors I can. I used pickled mustard seeds, and I made a charred green onion relish. Also I wanted to put corn on the menu. I didn’t want to just do corn and butter, so I did corn with wild garlic aioli. And I made a sage pesto. And for garnish I just toasted the corn hairs and just sprinkled them on top.
Had you come here before?
I was here last year. I really, really liked it. I kept coming by throughout the weekend, hanging out with people, hanging out with friends.
What’s next for you?
I will be back in B.C. next year. I’m moving back next spring. I’m going to go back to my hometown and live off the land and kind of go through a cultural montage. My Nisga’a side of the family.