Chef Rich Francis is a leader in promoting Indigenous cooking and facilitating discussions around decolonizing food and food systems.
He was originally a carpenter, but a life-altering car accident inspired him to change careers and enrol at Stratford Chefs School. There he discovered his passion for Indigenous cooking. But to reclaim Indigenous food, Chef Francis realized he needed to look at the entire food system.
Addressing Indigenous Food Inequities
When examining food systems in Canada, Chef Francis acknowledges the Indigenous trauma associated with food. In Canada, especially in northern communities, food is prohibitively expensive. Access to fresh fruit and vegetables is difficult or expensive, and some reserves still have no access to clean drinking water from taps.
The idea of food trauma may be a new concept for many. Food trauma in relation to Indigenous people often refers to the ways in which colonialism disrupted Indigenous foodways. This is where Chef Rich Francis is putting in the work and focusing on reclaiming Indigenous food. When asked about what reclamation means to Chef Francis, he said, “in dismantling all the negative things that have happened to Indigenous people, you can really see the intricacy, sophistication and how diverse Indigenous food is.”
Food security and trauma related to food is a large part of the food system in Canada that Indigenous people have to navigate. This trauma can make reclaiming food, food sovereignty and food systems very difficult. Chef Francis understands the need to advocate for the acceptance of Indigenous food and cooking techniques, as well as enhanced food security.
“As an Indigenous chef, my goal is to pull back that veil of colonialism and try to find the positives and carve out our culinary identity.”
When discussing the role that food plays within Indigenous identity, Chef Francis notes that Indigneous culture is “not a melting pot.” He acknowledges that no matter which Indigenous culture you belong to, “food is not only essential to our physical nourishment, but it is also important to our mental health, our relations and our connection to community.”
Reclaiming Indigenous Cuisine
Chef Francis advocates for reclaiming Indigenous food through Red Chef Revival, a Canadian television docu-series that focuses on telling Indigenous people’s stories through their plates. Additionally, he will star in a nine-part documentary this summer on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) called Wild Game, which focuses on trapping and wild game.
This summer, Chef Francis will continue his Seventh Fire meal series that he started in July 2020 on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. During the initial lockdown, Chef Francis decided to use the lockdown time to reset and pivot his cooking efforts. He came up with the idea of Seventh Fire Dinners: family-style menus based on Indigenous food ingredients.
More than a multi-course meal, it is an opportunity to educate and discuss decolonizing food efforts in Canada. On the reserve, Chef Francis can serve specific wild game such as moose or beluga, food that is otherwise illegal to serve in Ontario restaurants without a very specific license. The regulations around wild game are complex and unclear to many in the restaurant industry. Partially due to conservation efforts, and partially due to rules around regulatory bodies, wild game for now is off the table for Ontario restaurants.
By serving these meals, Chef Francis forces his guests to consider what foods are deemed “acceptable” and how that affects food sovereignty. A lot of food that is important to Indigenous history and culture is prohibited from being eaten off the reserves. Recognizing the limits placed on Indigenous people, Chef Francis is hoping his Seventh Fire dinner series will continue the conversations around decolonizing food and food sovereignty to move toward genuine reconciliation.
As Ontario’s restrictions begin to ease, the Seventh Fire meal series has resumed. Dates are announced via Chef Francis’s Instagram. The first Seventh Fire meal was held on June 19 and a brunch on June 20, both of which sold out. For future Seventh Fire meals you will have to follow Chef Francis on Instagram and email him for bookings.
Learn more about the efforts to make food access more equitable in northern communities by visiting the Food Bank of Canada’s website. They have partnerships and grants available to support food equity.
Many of the terms mentioned in this article are relatively new and complex. To provide some context, here are definitions to: food sovereignty, decolonizing food and food trauma. All definitions are from primary Indigenous sources and scholars.
Food Sovereignty: Specifically within the Canadian context, it refers to the movement to reclaim Indigenous food. Many iconic Canadian foods, such as maple syrup or salmon, were first consumed and cooked by Indigenous people. Within the Indigenous social movement, there is a drive to re-establish Indigenous identity within cooking that had previously been erased.
Decolonizing Food: Closely related to food sovereignty, decolonizing food is about reclaiming and reconciling Indigenous history and culture with food. Specifically being able to re-engage with foods that have been restricted from Indigenous people.
Food Trauma: Relates to specific practices of assimilation that disrupted the relationship between Indigenous people and food. In many circumstances during the colonial contact era, Indigenous people were forbidden from eating their traditional food, and began to rely on European diets that were heavy in carbohydrates and sugars. Diets high in carbohydrates and sugar have led to a health epidemic among Indgenous people. Indigenous people have 3x the prevalence of diabetes in their communities than non-Indigneous people. This is heavily linked to food insecurity since a lot of food received in remote communities is heavily processed with lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.