A conversation with chef Shane Chartrand about Geoscapes event, Indigenous cooking, new role at NAIT

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Shane Chartrand wants to put this interview on a personal level.

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“I need to know your favourite punk band,” he queries me intently, not two minutes into the conversation. It’s not quite the opening gambit you’d expect from one of the city’s most acclaimed chefs, but then again Chartrand isn’t necessarily everybody’s idea of what a chef should be.

“I’m a tattooed native guy with earrings and a mohawk,” shrugs Chartrand, who will be closing out this season’s Geoscapes Dome Dining series at the Snow Valley this weekend with three servings daily from 4:45 on. “I’m not really afraid of a whole lot unless someone’s going to rob me. The unknown doesn’t scare me.”

This isn’t a boast on Chartrand’s part, it’s a way of life. Currently prepping for his new job as a head administrator at the NAIT culinary program, Chartrand is clearly willing to tackle the unknown. He’s inquisitive. While being peppered with questions about his life he’s also asking questions back, his natural curiosity demanding it. We’ll leave out the interviewer’s answers, but for the record, he’s a big fan of Motley Crue, Judas Priest, and Run DMC. Wine and all of its complexities are a current passion, whiskey and rye he’s indifferent to.

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Chartrand also loves cookbooks, though his girlfriend sometimes gets exasperated by the mounting collection; he even added one of his own to the pile back in late 2019 when he and collaborator Jennifer Cockrell-King released tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine.

“It was such a hit,” he exclaims. “It’s still a hit, and I’m surprised, because now we’re actually releasing our third print. Jennifer says that normally very few people get a second print and now we’re going to roll into our third. So that’s pretty crazy, but people are hungry for it.”

Indeed. As Chartrand points out, his philosophy is based on terroir, working with elements from the area we live in, and people are becoming more attuned to that idea. With tawâw he’s tapped into this change in eating habits, gaining adherents around the world as well as North America. Again, there’s no braggadocio behind the statement that his cookbook is the closest version of Canadian food he can think of, it’s just a fact.

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Trevor Lipton (Partner, Geoscapes Events) relaxes in an air-conditioned geodome while sampling wine poured by Ashley Patenaude at the Snow Valley Ski Club on Wednesday July 14, 2021. The club lodge will be offering outdoor dining beside the lodge, with celebrity chefs cooking up fare, and served in air-conditioned gepdomes or outdoor tables.
Trevor Lipton (Partner, Geoscapes Events) relaxes in an air-conditioned geodome while sampling wine poured by Ashley Patenaude at the Snow Valley Ski Club on Wednesday July 14, 2021. The club lodge will be offering outdoor dining beside the lodge, with celebrity chefs cooking up fare, and served in air-conditioned gepdomes or outdoor tables. Photo by Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

You can see (and taste) his passion for yourself this weekend in Snow Valley, as Chartrand serves up the fusion of Indigenous and contemporary cooking he’s been riffing on since manning a truck stop grill as a teenager just outside of Red Deer.

“I like what they’re doing at Snow Valley,” he says. “I’m going to enjoy this but it’s going to be really hard to pull off, because my menu is really different. I’ve got my eyes and tongue. I got elk. I tried to keep it to this terroir, this land that we’re from. The best words my friend (and fellow chef) Ryan O’Flynn ever said was that Indigenous food is really Canadian food, and people in Canada don’t really acknowledge it.”

For Chartrand it’s not just about the food itself, it’s also the religion behind it; or, as Chartrand puts it, “the belief behind the belief system.”

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“I mean, if you’re British you have whatever it is that British people might eat. Tea and toast,” he laughs mischievously. “Gordon Ramsey definitely has a way with it and that’s great. He’s a super nice guy. We have what we have and it’s healthy; there’s no butter in it, there’s no fattiness. It’s beautiful, and I think that this is our world and we should celebrate that more often.”

That philosophy will be making its way into the world of culinary sciences this fall. Chartrand will be taking some of his passion for Indigenous food over to NAIT, though he’s in the process of trying to figure out exactly what the program will look like. Just off the phone with his new employers, he’s still hashing out the specifics.

“That’s kind of where we’re at,” he says. “It’s called tawâw but it’s not going to be tawâw, if you get what I mean. I think it will be okay. I’m going to talk to some elders first and see what their answers are, because elders are the ones that teach us.” He pauses. “Like, we can change the world. I believe we can, but, you know, I’m also a dreamer. I think we can change anything anytime we choose to.”

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We continue to talk about a variety of issues, the interview disintegrating into a regular conversation. There’s the pandemic, of course, and his musings on how the school year might look as the variants continue to rampage. A shared appreciation of INXS and Duran Duran, the first cookbooks we bought respectively, anywhere the discussion goes. Chartrand lights up on any topic, his thoughts racing beyond where the subject starts.

He’s got a lot on his plate right now, from administering his culinary program to working as a celebrity chef at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market. He’s settling into his new position as executive chef at the Compass Group, but he’s also thinking beyond that to new ideas with Jennifer Cockrell-King. After all, tawâw will be going on two years old as of October, and there’s a certain amount of clamouring for a sequel.

“We’re trying to think about a children’s cookbook right now,” he supplies. “That’s the idea for now, and I think it’s awesome. We’ll see where it goes, but I’m really excited about things.”

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Theresa D. Begay

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