The foodservice industry has always been a resilient, creative, and passionate one. This year has proved that without a doubt. Every year Restaurants Canada honours the incredible talent in our community through the Restaurants Canada Awards of Excellence. The Leadership Award, Innovation Award, and Culinary Excellence Award recognize the passion, innovation and creativity from business owners, chefs, frontline staff and suppliers across the country.
Presented yearly at the RC Show, the 2020 winner of the Culinary Excellence Award was Indigenous chef Billy Alexander. Growing up in the Pontiac region of Quebec, which is rich in indigenous heritage, Alexander started cooking at a young age. One of four boys to a single mother, they had a modest income and depended a lot on the land to get food on the table. “If it wasn’t something that we had either planted or hunted or received from the community or neighbours there wasn’t a lot of extra money to go around,” he remembers. “I don’t think I stepped into my first grocery store until I was in my teenage years.”
Alexander’s relationship to nature stems from his Mohawk heritage, who were best known as being the original stewards of the land. “[They were] the original Indigenous people to cultivate seeds and plants and grow them again outside of just what you would have found in the wild through foraging techniques,” he says.
At 15 Alexander took his first step into the culinary industry, starting as a dishwasher but quickly moving up to the line due to his organizational skills and work ethic. Alexander was hooked. “Being a poor kid who grew up in a smaller area this was the first time in my life I got to cook with food that other people had paid for,” he says. “It opened up a whole new world for me in terms of ingredients and that led to really kind of never looking back.”
By the time he was 18 Alexander had taken his first head chef job and was training at Le Cordon Blue in French cuisine. That led to seven years of travelling the world, living in different countries and experiencing other people’s cultures, always noting that there was an Indigenous culture in the mix in every place that he went. It wasn’t until he was at the tail end of his travelling in Australia and New Zealand that he realized his need to come back to his own Indigenous roots. “The honest to God truth is for a lot of my culinary career I wasn’t always the happiest person because I found there was something that was missing,” he says. After 15 years working as an executive chef, Alexander got the opportunity to go to Alberta and work for the Tsuut’ina Nation running the food program at Grey Eagle Resort in Calgary. “I started creating food off what would have been available to me from the terroir of the land and the relationship from the land,” he says, which, to him, felt like coming home.
Alexander decided to abandon French cuisine and focus on traditional native influences, adding in techniques like fire cooking, smoking and slow cooking, with an overall concept of that relationship to the land and mother nature that has been part of Indigenous culture and way of life for 14,000 years. “I made the decision to make all of my cuisine 100 per cent Indigenous based and really try to meld that perfect story of past and history and who we were into a modern-day Indigenous-inspired meal that would apply to today’s world,” he says.
Alexander started spreading his passion for Indigenous cuisine far and wide, appearing on many national television programs, and working with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) to promote Indigenous cooking both across Canada and on the world stage. While Alexander was proud of the work, he was doing he felt it wasn’t enough to bring Indigenous cuisine to light on a larger scale. This led to him partnering with a few other Indigenous chefs to create a national non-profit called the Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations (ICAN), to bring together all Indigenous chefs and hospitality workers throughout Canada, allowing them to expand their reach and resources in spreading Indigenous culture and cuisine across the industry and the country. “With the culinary world being so competitive this led to us going back to our traditional roots and acting as a community and really operating that way to further our goals and teachings and draw light to what Indigenous culinary truly is in this modern-day world,” he said.
It was Alexander’s passion and success in bringing Indigenous cuisine to the forefront in Canada that won him last year’s Culinary Excellence Award at the RC Show. “Thanks to leaders on the culinary scene like Chef Bill Alexander, we’re becoming more educated, and more enthusiastic about Indigenous cuisine,” Restaurants Canada President Todd Barclay says. “The belief that sharing culture through food and having an appreciation of where food comes from inspires us all.
Alexander remembers being extremely honoured by the award, adding that he was very surprised and pleased that the culinary community was paying attention to what they were trying to do. “It was the acknowledgement that Restaurants Canada and this award spoke to the fact at other people thought this work was important as well.”
Alexander is now working for the Caldwell First Nation and has just finished the design of the state-of-the-art Indigenous restaurant in Leamington, Ontario. Three Fires will be the world’s largest Indigenous restaurant, focused on telling the stories of the Caldwell people while incorporating food that people haven’t experienced in Canada before. Alexander’s goal is to help the Caldwell First Nation become the gold standard of Indigenous tourism in Canada and abroad. “We’re going to look to do things differently and really put on the forefront what Indigenous tourism is in southern Ontario and create some really cool interactive experiences as part of our economic development plan that really speaks to how culinary holds a lot of these things together and acts as a bridge between all things Indigenous.”
The nomination period for the 2021 Awards of Excellence is now open. If you would like to nominate someone for any of Restaurant Canada’s Awards, head over here. The deadline for nominations is January 31, 2021 and awards will be presented at this year’s RC Show.