There were both profound and practical culinary lessons to be learned as Ryan Mah and Daniel Berish spent the better part of a year scouring the bush in Alberta and B.C.
First, the practical.
Cougar tastes like pork. Cactus can be eaten. A beaver’s tail is fattier than you’d think. Bison jerky is the stuff of legend and moose meat is divine.
It was in the bush, eating cougar in the dead of night, that the Vancouver filmmakers happened upon the profound.
“The great thing about food is that it’s an access point to talk about things like reconciliation,” Mah said. “It’s not a solution by any means but it’s a great place to start a conversation that’s accessible.”
Berish and Mah are the co-directors of a six-part docuseries called Red Chef Revival, which launched April 16. Each episode takes viewers across remote parts of Canada’s two westernmost provinces as a trio of Indigenous chefs cook with whatever’s available to them while learning from the host First Nations.
Episode 1 is based in Osoyoos, where the Osoyoos Indian Band has traditionally relied on salmon, deer, or moose. In mid-winter, with nothing else to find, cougar and cactus helped band members stave off starvation.
Six Nations chef Rich Francis finds himself faced with that very scenario in the series premiere. Left to deal with foreign cooking materials and foreign ingredients, the norms of life in a high-end kitchen are set aside and Francis simply chucks the dish over an open fire.
“The cougar was surprisingly really good, but I’m not going to be serving up cougar to any of my friends any time soon,” Berish said.
Living with what the elements give you is central to Red Chef Revival. The series also plays on themes of reconnecting with lost traditions, meeting new people and reconciliation — whether it be reconciliation with Indigenous people or reconciling within.
“This is not a cooking show — this is a show about our chefs first and foremost, reconciling with their own identity as being Indigenous and learning about other indigenous communities,” Mah said. “They’re doing that and accessing their own culture through food, meeting local people and learning about local traditions and culture.”
The show’s genesis goes back four years, when the directors first met Francis on a remote island off Vancouver Island’s west coast. Francis was catering an event and seemingly based much of his menu off things he could find within 10 metres of where he was cooking. The Vancouver duo knew there was more to his story, and in the larger scheme, the untold stories found in Indigenous cooking across Canada. They linked up with other chefs — Shane Chartrand from Alberta and Cezin Nottaway from Quebec — and got the necessary funds from the Telus Storyhive grant program.
Filming lasted a year and took the Vancouverites to the Okanagan, Nemiah Valley and Prince Rupert, while the Alberta locales included Fort McMurray, Maskwacis and the Blood Tribe reservation.
It was in Alberta that Berish and Mah got a crack at bison, moose and the ancient stories that accompany them.
“Before we did this series we knew very little about indigenous cuisine and I think that’s reflective of what all Canadians know about Indigenous cuisine and culture in general,” Berish said. “Everyone has a reservation in their backyard, but how many of you have tried beaver tail?”
A new episode of Red Chef Revival airs on successive Tuesday for the next six weeks on YouTube and TELUS Optik TV.