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This article was published 31/7/2019 (338 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Christa Bruneau-Guenther never wanted to open a restaurant.
What the owner and head chef of Feast Café Bistro did want, however, was to raise the profile and accessibility of local food rooted in Indigenous tradition.
Bruneau-Guenther, 42, discovered her passion for food while running a daycare in the West End.
Many of the kids who attended her daycare lived in poverty and didn’t have access to regular healthy meals at home — a reality that led to behaviour and learning issues in the classroom. The solution? Create a daily meal, gardening and cooking program for her charges and their families.
The initiative hit closer to home when she discovered a version of the Canadian Food Guide geared towards First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. It included foods like squash, medicinal plants, hazelnuts and wild game, such as bison.
"There were all these ingredients on this food guide that I was not familiar with and it was like a lightbulb went off for me," she says. "What I started realizing is that you can connect to your culture through food. It was the most powerful thing I had ever experienced, and it was the same for the children and the parents. You get a sense of identity and self-worth and pride."
Bruneau-Guenther is a member of Peguis First Nation, but growing up in Winnipeg she didn’t know much about her Indigenous heritage — a product of her family’s experiences in the residential school system, she says.
In the last 15 years, she’s developed hundreds of her own recipes and endeavoured to learn everything she can about cooking with Manitoba’s native plants and animals.
The opportunity to become a restaurateur fell into Bruneau-Guenther’s lap when she was asked by New Life Ministries to take over the vacant Ellice Café and Theatre building. She said no initially, but changed her tune when she realized there was only a handful of restaurants in Canada, at that time, focusing on First Nations fare.
"I just felt a real responsibility because I had this food knowledge and passion."
She opened Feast in December 2016 and her work has since been featured by the Food Network, Chatelaine and Canadian Living.
Despite the international acclaim, community comes first for Bruneau-Guenther, who makes a point of hiring staff with barriers to employment, sourcing ingredients from Indigenous producers and keeping menu prices low.
Do you have formal culinary training?
What was it like for you to come into a restaurant environment and learn how that worked?
It was very different because I had watched from a distance when I was a server years and years ago, but I usually cook for my family of five and now I had to do it for a hundred people. I learned a lot about math and doing things in bulk was a big learning experience for me. I am blessed with an aunt who works in an old folks home and does a lot of cooking for many people, so she kind of helped train me a little bit.
Would you describe your family as a foodie family?
No, I think they’re all meat-and-potatoes humble. We all grew up in the North End so poverty was an issue for us and honestly I didn’t grow up eating anything fancy. Didn’t have a lot of take-out because we couldn’t afford that. My mom did have a mini garden where she grew the basics.
Do you have any dishes from childhood or family members that stick out in your mind?
My grandpa’s chili, which is on the menu but I’ve modified it with things like real garlic instead of garlic powder and real onions and things like that. I learned how to make pickerel from my dad and the baked bannock recipe that I originally started with at Feast was from another aunt of mine, she was the elder of the family.
What ingredient is always in your fridge or pantry?
Wild rice, bison… onions and garlic and I’ll always have squash from winter to summer from my garden.
Do you have a signature dish?
I do a turkey wild rice soup with some traditional beans that is a family favourite.
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How would you describe your culinary style?
I would say family-style for sure. I don’t like the term Indigenous-fusion because it’s just what’s reality for me being a family person. It’s like, how do I cook my traditional foods mixed with everyday foods and still connect to that as my culture?
What’s your go-to dish to cure a cold or a flu when somebody in the house isn’t feeling well?
Definitely some sort of a soup. If you have turkey bones or chicken bones or bison bones, you can boil them down with juniper berries and sweetgrass and sage and other traditional medicines. Then you have this broth that is milky and full of medicine and you can add corn and beans and other vegetables and wild ginger to that.
What’s your guilty pleasure meal?
Those stupid Mr. Noodles (packages), but I will slice up mushrooms and chives from my garden and I’ll add that in with maybe some kale or Swiss chard.
In the same vein, do you have a favourite fast food?
If I’m going to do it, it’s an A&W Teen Burger, or I also find picking up sushi pretty quick too.
Is there anything you can’t or won’t eat?
No, I’ll try anything and everything once and if it doesn’t taste good I’ll create a recipe to make it taste good.
What’s your proudest moment as a chef?
I know it’s going to sound cheesy, but honestly when you see a staff member create something of their own. That’s my proudest moment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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