I don’t know about you, but if someone had made mention of First Nations cuisine to me last week, I probably would have flashed back to days at outdoor school — preparing bannock by a hot fire in a longhouse.
But one local chef is out to prove that there’s a lot more to traditional First Nations food than bannock (though it’s definitely important). He’s been sitting down with members of the Lil’Wat and Squamish Nations to figure out what makes their culinary traditions so special.
Scott Dolbee, the Executive Chef at the Four Seasons Whistler, began developing First Nations-inspired menu items over a year and a half ago, soon after he made the move from Los Angeles to the Sea to Sky region. The innovative project is part of the Four Seasons’ catering partnership with the new Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre, which will open this summer.
Dolbee did some serious homework before developing his dishes, reading cookbooks and talking to members of the First Nations community.
“It was fun to dig around, talk to people, get kind of an idea of what they eat, where they’re from,” said Dolbee.
Chef Andrew George, a respected member of the First Nations and culinary community, was particularly integral to Dolbee’s research, educating him on key ingredients and helping to steer him in the right direction when it comes to First Nations cuisine from across Canada.
Dolbee soon discovered that First Nations cuisine is rich and varied. Dishes from Squamish tend to incorporate more seafood, due to their proximity to the ocean, while dishes from the Lil’Wat Nation include game, like wild boar, venison and musk ox. And almost all of their food includes locally grown produce, so while the slow food movement and 100-mile diet may be trendy, environmentally conscious dining movements, they’re by no means new concepts.
First Nations peoples subsisted on healthy diets of readily available produce, game and seafood long before “carbon footprints” were a hot topic at the dining room table.
Coming from L.A., Dolbee admits he had very little knowledge of First Nations culture before embarking on this project, and was a bit concerned that he could offend members of the Squamish and Lil’Wat Nations with his interpretations of their cuisine.
“Food means a lot to them, it’s a part of life and it’s taken very seriously,” he explained.
He views the partnership as a real opportunity to carve out a niche in the local fine dining scene, while popularizing First Nations cuisine and helping to educate people on another aspect of the culture and community.
After much research, Dolbee began putting his own special twist on traditional dishes, and developing some new delicacies of his own using ingredients that were key to both member nations.
Then, about three months ago, he held a tasting for about 25 elders and members of both Nations, inviting them to sample some of his creations and give feedback.
“They just loved it,” he said with a grin.
And what’s not to love? Dolbee’s creations are modern and creative, yet simple.
Under the appetizer category, he has created some visually stunning and delicious dishes, which include smoked salmon on bannock, served with lemon crème fraîche and pickled onion — (definitely not the same bannock we prepared back in Grade 5), grilled oysters with a flavourful salmon tartar in a lemon vinaigrette, served on the shell, garnished with a nori bannock cracker, and bison carpaccio with pickled vegetables, Saskatoon berry and grilled bannock.
He’s even managed to put a twist on simple salads, offering up mixed vegetables and butter lettuce with a cranberry vinaigrette, served with a wild rice pancake, and an apple, fennel and celery root salad tossed in a Lillooet honey dressing, and topped with toasted hazelnuts.
For the meat and seafood lovers, there is roasted spaghetti squash wrapped in wild boar prosciutto in a citrus vinaigrette, braised sturgeon on a bed of Pemberton vegetables with crème fraîche and boar bacon, and Dolbee’s take on a traditional hotpot of seafood — herring roe on kelp, lobster, scallops, prawns and mussels, in a white wine sauce.
While only a few of Dolbee’s First-Nations inspired dishes are currently offered on the Fifty-Two 80 dinner menu, marked with an Inukshuk symbol, they plan to begin offering more during the busier summer months.