As interest grows in learning about and understanding Indigenous culture, a unique five-year-old Indigenous Cook pre-apprenticeship program is thriving at Algonquin College. Ottawa At Home spoke with Chef Chris Commandant, a restaurant industry veteran who serves as the program’s coordinator, to find out about this innovative approach to sharing knowledge and respecting traditions.
Why is this program important and timely? Algonquin has made supporting Indigenous students a huge priority so this program was designed to offer another avenue to increase participation and graduation rates. It was developed to let students—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—become immersed in important cultural values and traditions.
What are the key objectives? We help students connect with Indigenous culture and history while providing them with many of the same practical skillsets as in our Culinary and Culinary Management programs. Students are exposed to a broad range of ideologies and traditions to help them discover, discuss and understand issues happening in real time across the country.
What are participants doing after completing the program? Eighty percent of graduates move on to jobs in the food world, in various settings including restaurants and as Indigenous cultural advisors on food production in their own communities. Some students have gone on to further study in other fields.
What aspects of your background are helping you succeed in running this program? I am originally from the Wahta Haudenosaunee Indigenous community in Bala, Ontario and since childhood have been learning about Indigenous culture; I’ve also completed post-secondary education in English, Food Science and Food Studies. This background helps me get my students organized so they can learn effectively and being able to truly relate to students as an Indigenous person has been critical to providing the compassion needed to keep them on track. Having strong connections in the local culinary industry helps with finding restaurant placements for our students.
Can you share any memorable moments? When the NAC opened its new 1 Elgin restaurant, Executive Chef Kenton Leier invited our students to work with renowned Indigenous Chef Rich Francis on the launch event. Our team worked so hard that Chef Francis invited us out of the kitchen to be presented to guests and we got to share in both a standing ovation and a huge sense of accomplishment. That experience really served to reinforce that what we are doing is worthwhile.
Are there enhancements you would like to make to the program? When pandemic restrictions loosen I would like to get students working with traditional outdoor cooking techniques and become involved in Indigenous activities in the community. I’d like to see a full unit dedicated to Indigenous food and traditions in our current Culinary program to help further break down barriers and one day I hope Algonquin College can offer a full track Indigenous culinary program.
How might this program to have lasting impact in the hospitality industry in our region? It would be great to see Indigenous-led restaurants, catering firms and food trucks become a strong presence in Ottawa as in other places in Canada. I hope to see Algonquin grads take their skills, adapt them and have the confidence to run their own places and offer delicious food with cultural relevance.
Do you have plans to foster greater awareness of Indigenous food in the community? I am excited to have formed a partnership with Ingenium and its affiliated museums to create a workshop series launching later this year, discussing topics including Indigenous food security and sovereignty in contemporary Canada. I am hopeful this will spark conversations and lead to action on issues like access to clean drinking water and healthy food for all.