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Christa Bruneau-Guenther didn’t set out to be a chef, let alone a chef judge on a reality TV series.
But the owner of Winnipeg’s Feast Café Bistro was tapped to be one of 33 chefs from across the country who will be featured on Wall of Chefs, a new competition series for amateur cooks premièring tonight on Food Network Canada.
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Wall of Chefs
Premières tonight, 9 p.m.
Food Network Canada
Each episode will see four home cooks complete in various culinary challenges to be judged by the chefs on "The Wall." The last cook standing will win $10,000.
Bruneau-Guenther, 42, is one of two Winnipeg chefs on The Wall, along with Deer + Almond’s Mandel Hitzer.
"I was obviously very humbled and surprised to be invited on the show with so many amazing celebrity chefs, many of them actually ones I’ve admired for so many years, that I actually learned a lot of my cooking skills from, watching them on Food Network," she says.
That the competition is for home cooks is particularly exciting for Bruneau-Guenther, as she is a self-taught home cook-turned-restaurateur. "It was something I never really dreamed of, that all the food I’ve been cooking for years in my home would be loved by so many people," she says.
"Being an Indigenous woman and being able to come on the show and promote Feast as being one of only a handful of Indigenous restaurants in the country, and to be able to represent our community and our people was extremely important for me."
Bruneau-Guenther opened Feast in 2016, and has been steadily turning out comforting, modern dishes rooted in First Nations tradition; pickerel sliders, bannock pizza, tipi tacos, and bison chili are all on the menu at her popular Ellice Avenue spot. While the restaurant is busy, Feast also feeds hundreds more via the catering side of the operation.
"There’s so much happening around reconciliation in the universities and other organizations, so we do a lot of catering where they want traditional food there to be part of that story," says Bruneau-Guenther, whose recipes have been featured in Canadian Living and Chatelaine. She’s also won several awards, including the Manitoba Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award for a Business with a Community Purpose in 2019.
Some of the challenges on Wall of Chefs are specific to each judge. Competitors must create a dish using three staple ingredients from the home fridge of one of the chefs, and they will also be challenged to create a dish inspired by one of the chef’s signatures.
"There were some opportunities to share about Indigenous ingredients I enjoy cooking with that I grow at home in my garden, and there were opportunities to watch some of the home cooks cook some of our traditional foods," she says. (She won’t divulge which — you’ll have to watch the show.) "Just those opportunities to say, ‘This is an ingredient that belongs to our traditional First Nations culture and food’ was really important, because I think that’s something that’s been lost among our communities, that connection to our foods from land, water and sky."
As for actually being on a competition-based cooking show, Bruneau-Guenther says she has a whole new appreciation for all that goes into them.
"It’s long hours," she says. "There’s lots that goes on behind the scenes to produce these kinds of shows. I was excited, I was nervous, I was scared — I think I went through every emotion. It was very overwhelming."
She also had to figure out her judging style. "If you ever came to Feast and sat down and spent time with our Indigenous people in our community, (you’d see) we’re extremely witty, we have a bit of dark humour in us, we love to laugh and make fun of people.
"I think I brought a bit of North End to the show, we’ll say," she says with a laugh.
Bruneau-Guenther has certain qualities she looks for in a "good" dish, namely if the ingredients are local and sustainable. But sometimes, the most important ingredient isn’t one that can be found on a pantry shelf.
"In our Indigenous community, it’s all about what you’re putting into your food — your thoughts and the love and the care. Usually, if you put all that energy into it and you’re cooking for your family with love and with health in mind, then the food comes out tasting like love. It tastes good and it feels good."
She hopes Wall of Chefs inspires people to cook more meals at home.
"I hope people learn stuff on the show and I’m so thankful they made a show that promotes home cooks, because most of us are," she says. "There are way more home cooks out there than there are chefs.
"I think that’s where society needs to go, is to cook healthy foods at home. That’s something that doesn’t happen as much anymore. I’m hoping the show will motivate people to cook more in their own kitchens. That can’t be anything but a good thing."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.