Chef celebrates Indigenous traditions with innovative flavours

Published on February 16, 2021

Shane Chartrand receives Alumni Award of Excellence

Red Deer’s Gasoline Alley isn’t exactly known for its high-end cuisine. Yet that’s exactly where Shane Chartrand’s journey as a chef began, serving up comfort food like Reuben sandwiches and liver and onions at a truck stop –“a legitimate truck stop,” he emphasizes – as a 16-year-old.  

While still in high school, Chartrand (Cook ’04) used to ride his bike five miles to work after classes let out, man the grill until midnight, then bike all the way back home to (hopefully) cram in some schoolwork before crashing. 

That same relentless passion for cooking has taken him across North America to explore the wide variety of Indigenous cuisines. It’s also led to a hit cookbook, his own restaurant and appearances on multiple reality-TV cooking shows.  

But for Chartrand, exploring the connection between Indigenous food and Indigenous culture isn’t just a hobby. It’s also at the core of his own identity. 

Reconnecting to Indigenous roots 

Chartrand was part of the infamous Sixties Scoop, a Canadian governmental practice in which Indigenous children across Canada were forcibly taken from their families and placed into foster care. He was eventually adopted by a Métis man and Mi’kmaw-Irish woman who lived south of Red Deer, and grew up on the couple’s farm, which is where he first learned to garden and raise livestock.  

“I knew I was Indigenous, but I didn’t know where I was from,” he says.  

It wasn’t until Chartrand was an adult that he learned he was in fact a member of the Enoch Cree Nation, west of Edmonton. 

A longstanding love of food is what first brought Chartrand to NAIT, though he was, in his words, a “late bloomer,” graduating in his mid-20s. 

While in school, Chartrand absorbed as much knowledge about the craft as possible, and was drawn to instructors who continually challenged him to learn the details about whatever dish he was preparing. And he’s continued challenging himself ever since, taking on jobs like making sushi, or cooking kosher meals as personal chef for the Ghermezian family, owners of West Edmonton Mall. 

One of Chartrand’s primary goals as a chef is to raise awareness of Indigenous food, and all the rich variety that the term contains. To that end, he’s travelled and cooked in more than 15 Indigenous communities across the country, learning from local chefs and talking to elders and knowledge keepers about the many uses of native plants, or how seal meat can feed an entire remote village.  

Tradition meets innovation 

Ultimately, Chartrand wants to take what he’s learned and share it with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike.  

“We need that information together, so that we can learn together,” he says. “The problem is we’ve been segregated for so many years. It’s hard to connect the communities together.” 

One way that Chartrand is able to share his knowledge is through the food he cooks in person – most recently, at the SC Restaurant in the River Cree Resort & Casino, which shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“There’s never a dull moment with his recipes,” says Cowboy Smithx, a Blackfoot filmmaker who recruited Chartrand for his REDx Talks, an Indigenous speaker series modelled after the popular TED Talks.  

The cover of Chartrand's acclaimed book tataw shows one of the feature dishes on a white plate. Chartrand's acclaimed book tawâw shares his journey as a chef and explores Indigenous cuisine.

“Shane is a bridge between the ancestral realm and the contemporary culinary world. This isn’t your typical Canadian pub burger and fries.”  

Instead, Chartrand creates innovative dishes like War Paint, which features quail eggs, wheat berries, and an eye-catching handprint of a red-pepper sauce on the plate. 

Celebrity chef in the making 

Another way that Chartrand passes along knowledge is through his many TV appearances, on shows like Iron Chef Canada and Fridge Wars, where he draws on his culture to alternately wow the judges or challenge the contestants.  

But perhaps the project he’s most proud of is tawâw, his 2019 hardcover book, co-written with Jennifer Cockrall-King, that blends recipes and memoir. The book, whose title translates to “Come in, there’s room, you’re welcome,” recently placed third at the World Gourmand Awards for cookbooks. Chartrand loved the end product so much that when his first copy came in the mail, he slept with it in his bed for three days straight. 

“He represents a new generation of food in Edmonton, and in Canada,” says Hong Chew (Cooking ’92), chair of the Culinary Arts program and one of the people who nominated Chartrand for the award.  

“There is a focus on what we all bring to the table, from our different backgrounds and upbringings and cultures. Shane represents a very positive step forward for all of us.” 

Chartrand and Jennifer Cockrall-King, co author of his book tawâw, stand outside in the snow in front of trees. Chartrand and co-author of his cookbook tawâw Jennifer Cockrall-King (Photo credit: Cathryn Sprague).

Alumni Award of Excellence

Shane Chartrand received the Alumni Award of Excellence for his significant achievements in the culinary arts profession. This award recognizes the significant contributions made in recent years by NAIT alumni to their profession or community.