Food is often the first entry point to an unfamiliar culture. For the Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations, food plays a vital role in the community. Now, Whistler's Indigenous museum wants to break bread (or bannock, to be precise) at its new, twice-weekly Winter Feast as a way to introduce guests to the culture and heritage of the Sea to Sky's first peoples.
The Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) is hoping to replicate the success of its Summer Feast at a time of year when the museum historically sees a dip in business.
"The Winter Feast is a hybrid version of what we do in the summertime," explained SLCC executive director Brady Smith. "We thought we would be resourceful and utilize a similar style of event and apply that to our winter programming. We know that there's a need in the community for additional restaurant-style seats, and in talking to our partners and our local concierges, we decided to implement a Winter Feast, really playing on Indigenous-style cuisine."
Running every Thursday and Sunday from Dec. 13 to April 18, this family-friendly dinner will feature a Northwest Coast-inspired menu, Indigenous World Winery wine pairings, and local craft beer. Guests will get to sample both traditional Indigenous dishes, such as bannock and cedar-planked salmon, along with more contemporary-style dishes using Indigenous ingredients, such as a paella made with locally sourced seafood. There are also several vegetarian and vegan options available.
Smith discussed the importance of food in both the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations. "When you meet someone new or you're having meetings, you always start by offering food. Food is truly part of the culture, it's engrained in the culture of Indigenous peoples, and that's no different for the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations," he said. "Having things like salmon and bison on our menu, these are things that historically and today are still harvested to ensure that families have meals, specifically salmon."
But more than just serving up a tasty meal, Smith said the Winter Feast is a way to deliver a "cultural experience" to a visitor base with a strong appetite for Indigenous offerings. Smith, who sits on the national Indigenous Culinary Committee, said that their research has shown one in three visitors to Canada are looking for an Indigenous experience as part of their trip.
"That's why we've packaged this in a way where people can come here and enjoy food, but at the same time they are actually receiving a cultural experience, not only because they are within the four walls of our building, but because they're going to be seeing these incredible performers come out and share stories with them," he adds. "It's an easy segue for people to have a cultural experience and dine at the same time."
Winter Feast will also feature traditional performances from both Squamish and Lil'wat Nation members. Anchoring the program is the Wells family, Lil'wat performers led by champion hoopdancer Alex Wells, who will don colourful First Nations' regalia typically found at a pow-wow.
"They provide a very interesting take on Indigenous performance," Smith noted. "Guests can experience something that they probably wouldn't experience anywhere else."
The SLCC has parlayed its catering business to more than 25,000 annual tour guests, Smith said. On top of being a significant revenue generator, the museum's emphasis on its culinary business has proven an effective way to employ and retain its staff.
"(We) realized about three and a half, four years ago now that we really had a rare opportunity to create an in-house catering team that could provide our guests with a complete, holistic Indigenous experience, meaning that, when a guest came here, they saw young, First Nations people working as servers or in our kitchen with our chef and team, and really fulfilling our mandate of First Nations employment here," said Smith, who added that the Winter Feast program will allow the SLCC to retain an additional 20 employees throughout the winter. In the summertime, the museum's staff jumps from 20 part-time equivalent employees to 80 solely through its catering department.
"Creating a robust catering department has allowed not only our First Nations employees to gain more knowledge and information about that sector, but also ensuring that people are learning from one another whether they're Indigenous or not. So in our kitchen and in our service front of house, we are working with longtime resort locals who are looking for part-time work in that catering area, and a lot of our young First Nations people who have never working in a kitchen or as servers before are now learning from some incredible professionals in their field. It's a big opportunity."
Guests can book their seats for the Winter Feast at slcc.ca/feast or by calling 604-967-1281. Tickets are $65 for adults aged 17 and up, $25 for youth between 13 and 16, $9 for children between five and 12, and free for kids four and under.