What This Restaurateur Wants You To Know About Indigenous Food

Inez Cook is a member of Bella Coola’s Nuxalk Nation who was forcibly taken from her parents by the Canadian government at the age of 1. Today, Cook operates the only Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver, Canada. Through her food, she tells the stories of First Nations people and businesses and fosters dialogue for positive change.

Cook helped add the land acknowledgment on Air Canada’s safety video, appeared in its video on truth and reconciliation, and served on the board of directors for Indigenous Tourism British Columbia. She wrote a children’s book based on her childhood and is opening her second restaurant, Salmon n’ Bannock On The Fly, at Vancouver International Airport later this year. In this Voices in Food story, Cook shares why we need to take conscientious steps toward honoring the original occupants of our place.

As a flight attendant for 33 years, I lived in different cities all over the world and tasted diverse meals, discovered cooking methods, observed food trends and realized that food brings every culture together. When I travel, I want to try food from that land. Food tells a story and creates memories. I saw how important of a tool food can be in uniting people. I, too, wanted to help build bridges through food and dreamt of opening a restaurant someday.

After I got divorced, a friend and I went to Kelowna (British Columbia) during their wine festival. While driving, I saw a big sign along the highway that said, “Don’t panic, we have bannock” (the bread associated with the Indigenous people of Canada), and I asked my friend to stop the car immediately. I got some bannock and it took me back to my childhood. I saw it as a sign that I needed to connect with my own heritage. All those years when I was traveling and living abroad, I assimilated with the cultures of those places as a chameleon. I grew up in a wonderful Caucasian family full of love, but I kept yearning for culture. I felt that this road sign was celebrating my legacy and I needed to do so, too.

“The reason you may not see many Indigenous people opening restaurants is because it’s not very appealing to move away from your culture and community to open a business in an expensive city.”

I opened Salmon n’ Bannock restaurant in 2010 just before the Winter Olympics. At the time, there had been only one Indigenous restaurant in downtown Vancouver, but it closed. It had a beautiful interior with Indigenous artwork, and you could smell the fish smoking when you walked in. I wanted those things too, but couldn’t afford them. So I decided to showcase a modern Indigenous bistro — one that was inspired by my culture and my travels. One where you could come and experience my own personal journey.

I hired local Indigenous people to create an authentic menu because I did not grow up in my culture. I was part of the group that was adopted out during Canada’s Sixties Scoop, so I did not start learning about my food until I opened the restaurant. Our team now includes 24 people from 18 different Nations. I have been learning from them over the past 13 years.

I wanted the restaurant to use only Indigenous ingredients from the land and the sea, such as soapberries, wild-caught fish and free-range organic game meat, and serve them to a modern palate. The dishes we serve look like what you would find at other restaurants, but it’s all our ingredients.

Initially, I had to really prove myself to diners and community members. No one knew me because I wasn’t from the culinary world or grew up in the Indigenous community. At the time, I did not understand why I wasn’t accepted right away, but I kept showing up and working hard. We are now rated the third best restaurant in Vancouver by TripAdvisor, and got a lot of support from Canadians during the lockdown. I have reunited with relatives from my Nation and use my voice on behalf of my people.

We are still the only Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver. Other than us, people can only try Indigenous cuisine at somebody’s home or at a catered event.

I would like to be in the regular dialogue, when people say, “Let’s go for sushi, let’s go for pizza, let’s go for Indigenous.” I don’t want people to say, “That is such a unique and exotic idea.” The Indigenous people have always been here, we have always been doing farm-to-table, we are not exotic. The reason you may not see many Indigenous people opening restaurants is because it’s not very appealing to move away from your culture and community to open a business in an expensive city.

Also, we have a big challenge when it comes to sourcing our food and wine. I am not allowed to serve half the things I want to because they are not commercially supplied. They can be seasonal, not widely harvested and confusing to policymakers. Once, we brought a top Māori chef from New Zealand during a chef exchange to make hāngī (traditional pit oven using rocks). It took seven health inspectors to approve it, though the New Zealand Māori have been making it since the beginning of time. It is frustrating, but I am hopeful for the future, too. I have heard that some communities are working on getting licensing for commercial food products.

“Don’t call Indigenous food a ‘theme.’ That is not the right terminology to describe us. Our people and our food are living cultures, not Disneyland.”

Trying Indigenous food is one of the most accessible ways for other people to meet us, to learn about our stories and start dialogue. Over 600 nations in Canada still need healing and 100% of the Indigenous populations in Canada today have been personally affected by the residential school programs. When you walk into my restaurants, you have an opportunity to not only taste the food and support our businesses, but also to acknowledge our presence. You can be better aware of the land you live on, work at and profit from. Don’t just think about us on specific days like June 21 (National Indigenous Peoples Day), Sept. 30 (National Day for Truth and Reconciliation) or Turtle Island (North America’s) Thanksgiving. I don’t think you can celebrate “discovering” a place that doesn’t belong to you and where people are already living.

When you talk to Indigenous people about their stories, it is important to understand that there are heavy emotions attached to certain topics. Be empathetic, mindful and respectful. Ask if it is OK to talk about a certain triggering topic. And don’t call Indigenous food a “theme.” That is not the right terminology to describe us. Our people and our food are living cultures, not Disneyland.

I believe that privilege is not just being a white person. Privilege is also having a voice that you can use to bring good in the world. I am privileged because I have a platform to speak my voice and to be an ally of my people. We all make mistakes, but can make changes and start healing together. I often quote Maya Angelou’s words, “Know better, do better.”