Rewind to Move Forward: Reflection of the Modern Indigenous Chef

943884_10156461862970195_3349797162122064160_n By:  Chef Rick Powless


Getting to tomorrow is the goal.  Today is the journey we find ourselves on to obtain that goal.  But yesterday, well that is where we started, where we opened our eyes, felt the sun beating down on us, heard the sounds of birds chirping, saw flowers blooming all around.  We took this inspiration and built the foundation to see the future, the dream…the goal.

My journey has been a sort of rewind more than once.  Growing up in a family that cooks, it was a natural path to take, but I didn’t see that.  I loved cooking and it felt so natural, but at such a young age (I was 5 yrs. old when I first began cooking) I didn’t see the signs.  I wandered “aimlessly” throughout my younger years, being a mischievous child with no cares in the world.

With pressure from my dad, I did go to college but not to Culinary School.  I chose to do academics.  I know, foolish me but that’s what I did.  After some testing to see if I was Sheldon Cooper or not, it was decided I would become an Accountant.  I finished school and spent 1 ½ years as an Inventory Auditor for a larger automotive company.  I hated the work.  Monday – Friday, 9:00 – 5:00 with nights and weekends off…oh yes, a decent pay.   What drove me to the breaking point was this, wearing a suit and tie and sitting at a desk every day.  That made me crazy!

Thus, my first rewind.  I knew I could cook, and I always enjoyed the feeling that came over me when my guests complimented me on my dishes.  I applied to Culinary school and was accepted.  I found it quite interesting and had top marks.  I was the target of some of my classmates because I was always finishing first, scoring high grades and still having time to assist my classmates when they struggled.  After all, this is a team industry.  We work as a team.  We cook as a team.  We have fun as a team.  We fight like it is a cage match, but afterwards…beer, handshakes and laughter.  Teamwork.  This was the start of 21 wonderful years in the industry.  Amidst that, I wrote and achieved my Red Seal as a Chef.  I was on top of the world.  Or so I thought.

Let’s jump backwards for a moment.  During my reckless, wandering times as a youth, I played semi-pro football.  During a practise, I blew out my left knee.  My time as an athlete was done…just like that.  I never properly took care of this injury.  Now, back to the present time in my story.  My knees became increasingly worse, to the point I could barely walk.  In not taking care of my left knee, my right knee became a hot mess.  4 ligament/tendon surgeries to repair, I went in for knee replacements on both knees.  The thought of not cooking professionally again was a lot to take in.  I had dedicated so much of my passion, sweat, blood and life to this industry.  Now I had to make a life decision.  What next?

I loved sharing my experiences and knowledge with others.  I loved to cook for others and discovered that teaching would be a perfect fit for me.  I had to so much to offer.  I could become a mentor and role model for these students.  I was challenged at times, but my evaluations proved to me that this was the right move for me.  My instructors were impressed by my knowledge and enthusiasm for my profession.

I had some amazing students.  Some as smart as a whip, some with challenges but all of them had one thing in common…they really wanted to learn to cook.  And I really wanted to teach them.  I mentored students to compete in the Skills Ontario/Skills Canada competitions.  I supported students who struggled with the workload.  I encouraged students to push through hard times and cheered with them when they reached success.  I had a student who was a safety threat.  He had a hard life and was someone students knew as a loner.  I took this as an opportunity to show that a good teacher could make a difference.  A student with many challenges, went from an outcast in my class to one who answered questions, involved himself in group lab work and class discussions.  He became a student with one of the highest marks in his class.  Just one example of how a good teacher could make a difference.  I was so proud of all of my students.  Then the unthinkable happened.  I became sick.  Mental illness had reared its dark side upon me, and I struggled with day to day functions.  I had to take a leave of absence from teaching.

Medication.  Counselling.  I was on my way to recover.  During this time, I began my next rewind.  This rewind brought me full circle.  Let’s do a little bit of background on myself.  I am Oneida Nation, Bear Clan.  My name is Lakhwaw?ya^hu (Good Cook, knows food) and was given to me by my faith keepers and clan mother.  I was born and raised in London, Ontario, Canada.  I did not grow up knowing who I really was.  I was bullied and tormented as a youth.  I didn’t fit in.  Then my dad passed away.  I knew if I didn’t do something with my life, my family would grow smaller without me truly knowing them…or myself.  I began the journey to rediscover who I was.

Upon contemplation, I realized that the education system mocked Indigenous people.  We became tokens for their convenience.  Even though the school boards acknowledged that they are visitors on Indigenous lands and some school boards did land acknowledgement at the beginning of each day before class, they did not take care to understand the words, nor did they care to respectfully acknowledge the lands and the peoples that were and are here.  I was frustrated.  I was angry.  Even the curriculum was vague and did not represent Indigenous peoples well.  One History book for grade 11 (Eleven) only had 1 (one page) on Indigenous History.  Here I was, trying to teach our foods and foodways/processes against a reluctant school board.  Let me say this, ACTIONS MEAN MORE THAN WORDS.  Putting policy in place and not following through does not make it right, or acceptable.  Not only did I find that the schools and school boards played this “word” game, but the Ministry of Education and OCT (Ontario College of Teachers-the independent governing body for teachers in Ontario) had mission statements and/or policies in place that were not followed through, or excluded Indigenous peoples all together.  This is NOT INCLUSION.

I had a real opportunity to make change.  But first, I needed to make change in myself.  A Food Summit was fast approaching, so I signed up.  I wanted to know more about our foods, food process and food ways.  What I received was more than I could have asked for.  I participated in the kitchen, cooking the meals every day for all the chefs, cooks, participants and visitors to the summit.  The people I met.  I was blown away to find out just how many Indigenous Chefs were out there, making a difference every day. One day, I’m walking through the market they have set up.  I just needed a break from the hustle and bustle.  A young man approached me.  He says, “Hi.  Are you one of the chefs here?  You look important.”  I smiled back, surely blushing a little and responded, “Yes, I am one of the chefs here.  No, I’m not important.  Not compared to the many amazing chefs here.  I am just here learning.”  With that, I walked away, smiling.

A very emotional, real moment for me.  I needed more.  I was like a thirsty horse needing water.  I spent time at conferences, summits, even a boucherie to learn from the best out there.  I wanted to be the Indigenous Chef I knew I could be one day.  Every day is a learning day for me.  The people, the chefs, the activists I have met along this journey has shone a light upon me.  I have been invited to participate in events, to share my knowledge with others, and to continue my education with other like-minded individuals.

Today, I am a Modern Indigenous Chef.  Today I know more than I did yesterday but there is so much to learn ahead of me.  Today I take what I have learned so far and I pass it along to the next generation.  I am excited, nervous, anticipating what is in store for me tomorrow.  I hold close to my heart, the lessons shared with me from my colleagues, my peers, my mentors.

Yaw^ko.  Tiawenhk.  Chi Miigwetch.  Kinana’skomitin.  Wela’lin.  Thank you.

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