If you’ve never heard of Chef Quentin Glabus, that’s because he is not, by any means, famous. He doesn’t have any Michelin stars, nor does he own one of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
Glabus is a Canadian aboriginal chef who does aboriginal inspired cooking. Don’t call him Indian though –– he doesn’t like it. He warns that the word, “Indian”, is a misnomer when it’s being used to refer to indigenous people in North America. It was a term coined by explorers during Christopher Columbus’ voyage who thought they had sailed to India when they had in fact ended up in North America, and mistook the native population for Indians. While controversy surrounding the terminology is ongoing, Glabus personally prefers the terms “First Nations”, “indigenous” or “aboriginal”.
He is part of the Frog Lake Cree First Nations, located in the province of Alberta, roughly 3.5 hours’ drive Northeast of Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta. The community has a reserve population of about 1000 residents. The relationship between Canadians and First Nations people has been fraught with difficulties for centuries – the aftermath of European colonisation of North America. Aboriginals who live on reserve continue to face welfare issues, and suicide amongst indigenous youth is a concern. A Canadian native even admitted to holding racist views against people of their own race. In other words, Canada’s aboriginals are still marginalised, just like the natives of any country that was colonised. Glabus didn’t grow up on the reserve, and had a relatively normal, happy childhood. He has half of his family on-reserve, and visits whenever he has the opportunity to. Over the past 17 years, he’s pursued an education and a career in culinary arts which have taken him to Orlando, Trinidad & Tobago, Tokyo, Ottowa, Taipei, Beijing, and now Rio de Janeiro.
He grew up eating moose steaks, elk steaks, beef and chicken, just like any other Canadian, but has stayed in touch with his roots through the aboriginal food his grandmothers cooked. “My first memory of aboriginal food was of my grandmother and my great grandmother making a berry compote with wild game. Smoked moose, smoked deer, venison, Bannock.”
What many people are unaware of is that many of the current food trends are not new to First Nations cooking. “Farm to table is not a new thing to aboriginal people. Family-style service is not a new thing. Definitely the whole tail to snout concept, First Nations people have been doing it for centuries,” he tells me. With that said, Glabus isn’t fazed by the fact that the cuisine of his culture is still largely underrepresented in the culinary world. “We’re unknown, low key, we’re the underdog. Representation is always good but I’ve always enjoyed being the underdog.”
First Nations cuisine is slowly seeing a revival in the North America in the past couple of years, and Glabus is not the first aboriginal chef who’s been trying to raise awareness of the cuisine. From Vancouver to Winnipeg to Toronto, you will find at least one restaurant serving First Nations inspired dishes. But what was the food was like in its purest, most original form? “Before colonisation of North America, First Nations people were simple. They were using ingredients provided by the land or Mother Earth to create what we needed for day to day or future use,” he tells me. “They cooked a lot of wild game, wild fish, freshwater and saltwater fish. A lot of wild fruits, wild berries that grew naturally. A lot of wild potatoes like Wapato (arrowhead).”
Game meats feature heavily in indigenous cuisine. Salmon is a major food source of the Canadian West Coast aboriginal people, while the Frog Lake Cree First Nations is in the Western interior; the plains or prairies where the North America Bison was the primary food source along with other wild game. There is also a spiritual aspect to the cuisine. Aboriginals believe that everything in life has a spirit or soul. They honour nature by using wild food and seasonal ingredients sourced from the lands they are on. This is evident in a dish such as cedar-plank salmon, which Glabus often gets asked to cook. The salmon is grilled over hot charcoal on cedar grilling plank that’s been soaked in water for a few hours, resulting in a dish that takes on the aroma of the smoked wood.
Based on his experience, First Nations food in Canada has met with mixed reception. Some of the dishes include beaver tail or moose nose soup –– food that the average person wouldn’t be comfortable eating. Putting a modern spin on this centuries-old yet emerging cuisine allows it to be more widely shared. Some may see that as pandering, but Glabus sees it as an evolution of indigenous food. Through cooking aboriginal inspired food, he’s not just educating himself about his roots and preserving his culture, he’s also trying to share it with the next generation and introduce it to others who may not have heard of it.
If he had to pick one dish that best represents indigenous food in North America, it’s Bannock, a round flatbread with the texture and thickness of a scone, usually cut into wedges for serving. It was introduced by Scottish fur traders when they came into contact with the First Nations people, who then adopted it as part of their cuisine. “It’s one of these things where it’s always, ‘whose grandmother makes the best?’ But from coast to coast, there’s gonna be different interpretations of that. Then again, everyone’s grandma’s the best,” he laughs.
The cuisine speaks of a culture that is humble and unifying. In a world where it’s become increasingly common for people to eat alone in front of the TV or computer, food in First Nations culture is a family affair. He tells me that greeting someone with “Hi, have you eaten?” is common in his culture, which in that case bears a similarity to many Asian cultures.
“Food in my culture links identity, friends, family. You go back home to my grandma’s house, the kitchen is where everyone eats. When people come over to visit, they don’t go to the TV. They’re gathered at the kitchen table, eating food, telling jokes, stories. When grandma says eat, you eat,” Glabus says matter-of-factly. “To me, food is not about being great, it’s not about the techniques. Aboriginal food brings people together. Whether it be a celebration or even if it’s something tragic, food helps bring people together.”
Departure thanks the High Commission of Canada to Singapore for the interview opportunity.