The West End is Winnipeg’s most ethnically diverse community — especially when it comes to its restaurants. With more than 100 little hidden gem eateries you can enjoy flavours of the world and the culinary traditions of the people who have immigrated here. Among those delights is a unique and renowned restaurant dedicated to celebrating the culture of the people who have been here all along. At Feast Café Bistro, owner/chef Christa Bruneau-Guenther punches above — way above — her 5-foot-0 inches when it comes to her commitment to keeping the foods of her Indigenous heritage alive. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Bruneau-Guenther is a French Métis and a proud member of Peguis First Nation. Leading up to Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, Vacay.ca asked her to share thoughts about her cuisine and the growing interest in Indigenous restaurants across the country.
Although she has always had a passion for food, she never imagined she would one day have a restaurant of her own. Her journey from running an Indigenous children’s day care to opening Feast Café Bistro in December 2016 — going from home cook to chef — is unconventional and inspiring. So much so that Bruneau-Guenther was named the 2019 Manitoba Woman Entrepreneur of the Year for a Business with a Community Purpose.
Feast fits into the landscape of the West End’s small, family-run businesses, which include more than 150 restaurants. The neighbourhood developed in the late 19th century as a working- and middle-class residential area when it sat on the edge of the city’s boundary. Winnipeg has since extended miles to the west, and what’s known as the West End is now located near the heart of the city. It is home to one of the largest outdoor mural collections in Winnipeg that showcases the stories of the people, historic times, and events that have helped shape the district. A tour of the area is essential to understand its roots and the Métis community, as Bruneau-Guenther explains, has always been an intrinsic part of the local heritage, despite attempts to erase them.
Vacay.ca: Tell us about your family background.
Christa Bruneau-Guenther: I grew up in Winnipeg’s North End in a large Indigenous family. I was very disconnected from my culture and its food, mainly because of how residential schools impacted my grandmother, and, as a result, my immediate family.
Vacay.ca: How then did you learn about traditional foods?
CBG: I became curious and wanted more knowledge. But there wasn’t a single book in the library that could give me this information. So, I connected with elders and First Nation communities.
Vacay.ca: For 11 years, beginning in 2005, you ran a licensed Indigenous day-care program for inner-city children. How important was your new-found culinary knowledge to the program?
CBG: Incredibly important. I realized the children who were not thriving were not eating well. I was really interested in cooking and worked hard to develop my cooking skills. I started to provide nutritious meals for the children based on Canada’s Food Guide for First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and sent the children home with healthy recipes for their parents.
Vacay.ca: Apart from healthier children, what was the result of incorporating Indigenous foods into the program?
CBG: It was very empowering. It gave us an understanding of where we came from and a sense of pride and self-worth. We learned about how our people honour and respect animals and the sacred vegetables. I now have a huge Indigenous food garden and I do all my own canning and preserving.
Vacay.ca: How did you make the quantum leap from day-care to restaurant owner?
CBG: Five years ago, there wasn’t an Indigenous restaurant in the city and only a handful across the country. I felt a real responsibility to share the food knowledge I had gained with our community. I wanted to showcase our culture, our people, our food and music with the greater public. I wanted to create a meeting place for our community. I sold my business and developed hundreds of recipes using local foods. I was offered an opportunity to purchase a portion of a building to open a restaurant. The concept of a neighbourhood restaurant that keeps prices low to give the community access to delicious healthy food began to take shape.
Vacay.ca: How would you describe Feast Café Bistro?
CBG: It’s a 50-seat restaurant in the heart of the West End neighbourhood. We wanted to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere that connects our guests to our history and rich culture. Our goal is to keep prices low to give the community access to delicious, healthy food. I can’t imagine running this anywhere else. We serve modern dishes rooted in traditional Indigenous ingredients. It’s locally sourced, hearty, good-old home-cooked grub.
Vacay.ca: What are your favourite items on the menu?
CBG: For lunch, our wild rice salad with cranberries, sunflower seeds and Saskatoonberry vinaigrette. At dinner, fall-off-the-bone bison ribs, dry-rubbed for 24 hours and braised for eight hours, served with wild blueberries and potato squash mash. And we make a great roasted bean and corn salsa.
Vacay.ca: Who inspires you?
CBG: As a home cook, most of my learning came from watching food shows on TV with chefs such as Christine Cushing, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Oliver and experimenting with their recipes. My a-ha moment came when I was a judge for a day on Food Network Canada. I was sitting alongside highly trained professional chefs thinking I learned by watching you and now I’m sitting here with you. It was both very humbling and a hot moment for me.
Vacay.ca: When it comes to travel, where else have you been and where would you like to go?
CBG: I love to travel. My husband is an Air Canada pilot and, whenever possible, I will hop on a plane with him to travel to far-away places, even for two days. I am always inspired as to how a country’s cuisine represents the history of the people. Japan was an amazing, three-day total immersion. Thailand, with its amazing food culture, is next on my bucket list.
Vacay.ca: Do you see the interest in Indigenous cooking and Indigenous restaurants increasing across the country?
CBG: Absolutely. Especially now as June is National Indigenous History month. People have become more curious, asking about our traditions, the importance of local food and the spirit and essence of our people. I want to inspire the next generation. At Feast, we provide apprenticeship and employment opportunities for individuals who want experience in the restaurant industry. We pride ourselves in being a pillar in the community.
Vacay.ca: At one point, you were planning to write a cookbook. Is that still on your agenda?
CBG: I had collected hundreds of recipes that I wanted to share. But writing a cookbook can be all encompassing. I’ve decided that I would rather share what I have learned virtually, with videos, catering to outside events, and doing community outreach.
Vacay.ca: What does being a trailblazer for Indigenous cooking and restaurants mean to you?
CBG: It means believing in your purpose and your abilities, following the signs and taking risks. It’s about integrity, putting people first, and having trust in your journey.
Vacay.ca: Looking to the future, what are your hopes?
CBG: I would like to expand so that we create more buzz, more awareness, and more jobs for my community. I am looking forward to being a grandmother in November and all the hopes that go along with a new family member. And I would like to invite visitors to Winnipeg to visit Feast, to connect with us, and enjoy the bold flavours of our great land.