Chef Rich Francis returns to Stratford

Chef Rich Francis of District Red and Top Chef Canada Season 4 Finalist.  (©Red Works Studio)

Chef Rich Francis, a “Top Chef Canada” Season 4 finalist, is rejuvenating First Nations cuisine through Aboriginal Culinary Concepts. (Photo courtesy of Red Works Studio)

Story by Sandra Williams-Herve Writer

STRATFORD, ONTARIO — Rich Francis, a finalist on Top Chef Canada and the owner of Aboriginal Culinary Concepts, is on a mission to change the way you think about Aboriginal food.

With career highlights that include working for Toronto’s Splendido and Peller Estates in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Francis has developed exceptional culinary skills. Originally from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, the father of three now makes his home on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario.

Francis may have trained at the Stratford Chefs School, one of Canada’s most prestigious culinary schools, however, he’s very much in tune with his First Nations roots. During the 2014 Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival he shared his culinary vision with us. In your opinion, what is Canadian cuisine?

Rich Francis: I think Canadian cuisine takes on too much of a generic term in that it’s so diverse and different from province to province. Each province has its own uniqueness and contribution to Canada. For me the term “Canadian cuisine” is one of those things that has eluded me the more I think about it, so I just don’t.  Why is it important that all Canadians — and those visiting Canada — experience or at least become aware of the aboriginal style of cooking?

Francis: I think now is the time to experience the newer styles of aboriginal cookery happening right here in Canada. The Indigenous diet across Turtle Island [the name aboriginal groups give to North America] had, at one point, served a purpose, which we no longer have to adhere to anymore. If you compared the older style of aboriginal cuisine [which was focused on hunting and gathering for our survival] with other global cuisines it wouldn’t be able to compete.

It was bland. Most non-aboriginal palates just wouldn’t understand it. However, today is an exciting time because Indigenous chefs, including myself, are revisiting it. We are making the shift into the mainstream by presenting items that more appropriately explains our food today. You were raised in Fort McPherson, Northwest Terrirtories. What was it like to grow up there? And how has it influenced your approach to modern cooking?

Francis: I have nothing but fond memories of my childhood in Fort McPherson and the Mackenzie Delta. Some of my earliest memories of tastes, smells and culture were there. To this day, it is a huge influence on my cuisine. Being at fish camp and cutting up caribou were everyday things that will never leave me. You studied culinary arts in Stratford. What was it like to live and study there considering your background living on a reserve?

Francis: It was a unique time at Stratford. I had been living off the reserve with my wife and our three kids for many years already, so being away from the reserve wasn’t the issue.

Prior to chefs’ school I had never stepped foot in a professional kitchen and I was one of those people who started late in the game so there was some anxiety or some nervousness attached to that whole time in my life. But as soon as I started, something inside of me recognized the culinary arts; it was really bizarre. I excelled immediately and I always knew that I was to do something unique with Indigenous food. When it comes to getting away, where do you like to go?

Francis: I read a lot. That’s my escape. But my most enjoyable is time with my children. They have a special way of keeping me grounded.  What is the best-kept secret about your favourite travel destination?

Francis: I wouldn’t say there’s one in particular but when I’m in a new city I try to find the best oyster joint around. My most recent find was in Halifax. Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant escapes me, but it was complete heaven.  What are your favourite ways to travel and why?

Francis:  I’ve been on the road throughout Canada a lot lately, and find that in between my gigs I spend time alone to discover the things that intrigue me. I like that uninterrupted alone time spent with my thoughts and inspiration to create new and innovative things.

Sandra Williams-Hervé is a writer, actress, and producer who divides her time between Toronto, Canada and Paris, France. She was bitten by the wanderlust bug early in life and has visited just about every continent. After growing up in Ontario, she hopes to visit all of Canada’s diverse provinces.

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