Mark Peltier never thought he'd actually open a restaurant or call himself a chef, but now the self-taught cook is serving up some of his favourite Indigenous dishes in Windsor.
On Sept. 11, Peltier opened Native Wonders Gourmet Grub on Ottawa Street — likely the only restaurant in the city that offers what he calls "gourmet powwow food" including Indian tacos, corn soup and frybread.
"This was a dream of mine years ago, to have a gift shop and also have a restaurant that people can sample the culture, but also sample the food so you get the full experience in one location," Peltier said.
The Indigenous artist, whose ancestors were originally from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay, said these sorts of meals aren't readily available nearby and opening a shop like this in Windsor allows him to service southwestern Ontario and the United States.
Indigenous foods with a twist
The step into cooking was a natural progression for Peltier, he says he always cooked for his own family and worked in restaurants when he was younger.
But Peltier never had the chance to learn how to cook traditional foods from his grandparents, so he decided to teach himself by attending powwows and trying out online recipes. With each recipe, he tries to add his own twist and give them a different flavour.
"It's Indigenous, but it's also a step further to carry it out so that more people can enjoy something different on the menu," he said.
One well-known Indigenous food that Peltier makes is called frybread or bannock, which consists of flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and water — the types of ingredients provided to Indigenous people from trade deals with European settlers.
A province away, Christa Bruneau-Guenther, the owner of Winnipeg's Feast Café Bistro, can relate to the process Peltier has gone through to create his business and learn to make Indigenous foods.
Bruneau-Guenther is also a self-taught chef and says she relied on speaking to elders and others in her community who know the recipes.
"People like myself are seeking that knowledge because it's not written in a book," she said.
Not only do the recipes vary, but so too does the meaning behind the food, depending on who you talk to.
In Manitoba, Bruneau-Guenther said bannock is a more controversial food because some people say it came about from colonization. But for her, the bread brings up different feelings.
"I have fond memories of making that native bread with my aunt and my family and then having it warm with homemade jam ... it's something very special for me culturally," she said.
Only about a quarter of Native Wonders Gourmet Grub menu items pull directly from Indigenous culture.
The menu also includes poutine and chili cheese fries and also has plenty of vegan options — a choice that Peltier said he made because its "not a far stretch" from Indigenous cuisine.
It's a smart move, says Bruneau-Guenther, who has seen other Indigenous restaurants go out of business because sourcing Indigenous ingredients is challenging and expensive.
"Not everybody wants to eat those really unique ingredients so if you can open up a restaurant and make that kind of investment he's got to make sure that he can sustain jobs and sustain his business," she said.
Peltier said he's proud to be sharing his cultural roots with people in the city and sees this as his way of giving back after being part of Windsor's Indigenous community for so long.
Peltier was the former president of the Can Am Indian Friendship Centre and later sat on its executive board.
"It is who we are and you have to be proud of who you are and be able to perpetuate that to people that come by," he said.
In the future, Peltier said he hopes to bring in Indigenous youth and train them on how to cook the dishes and run a restaurant.
The restaurant sits beside Peltier's previously established shop, Native Wonders Gift & Gallery, which he opened last summer.