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Three days of feasts and talks
Kugluktuk hosts renowned chef for community gatherings

Stewart Burnett
Northern News Services
Monday, July 27, 2015

Kugluktuk hosted a famous chef and three days of feasts but it really wasn't about the food.

NNSL photo/graphic

Louis Charest Executive Chef, executive chef of the Residence of the Governor Genernal, and Donna Pangun, culture support advisor of Society for Building a Healthier Kugluktuk, share a moment in the kitchen. - photo courtesy of Mike Webster

The Society for Building a Healthier Kugluktuk teamed up with a number of influential people and generous sponsors to host a series of community feasts designed to encourage communication and get people thinking about food in a different way.

"We went up there and thought, 'Let's get the youth and the elders around food, talking about food as a way to connect,'" said Nunavut lawyer Steven Cooper, who grew up in the North and is part of a group of lawyers involved with the $5-billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

"We weren't there just to tell people how to cook. We did a lot of listening as well."

He helped bring Louis Charest, executive chef at the Residence of the Governor General, to participate in the feasts and cooking.

The event had two goals - use food to connect people in the community, and give residents ideas about ways to make local food healthier.

"We wanted people to understand that the solution to nutrition problems in Nunavut is generally not with good-hearted people, well-intentioned people, sending stuff through the mail but rather taking what's available locally and traditionally and increasing their nutrition by going to the local Co-op or North Mart and buying things to enhance what's already there," said Cooper.

Charest helped prepare a barbecue caribou dish with lettuce wraps and other local ingredients, which some elders enjoyed, Cooper said, because it was easy for them to chew.

The whole community came out for the feasts. One night had at least 150 people, said Cooper.

More than cooking, participants got involved in gathering and preparing food as well.

One of Cooper's fondest memories of the trip was chef Charest sitting on the beach with his high-end Japanese filet knife, along with two elders with ulus.

"Louis was absolutely blown away with their skill," Cooper said. "This is a man ...who prepares fish nonstop for kings and queens around the world, and he said their skills were at least comparable to his. He thought they were just going to sit down with the ulus and chop the fish into steaks. When he saw them filleting, he was thrilled, because this is his territory."

That helped everyone understand the common ground, he said.

"Even though those women spoke very little English, they were sitting and filleting 20 to 30 fish together using their traditional Inuit techniques, him using his traditional chef technique, each using their own tools and accomplishing the same thing with the same degree of perfection."

Another highlight was going on a fishing trip with local hunters. One of them brought in an Arctic char and Charest immediately turned it into sashimi with five different spices.

But when it came to the feasts, in which Kugluktuk residents would join in the cooking process, Charest's high-end skill wasn't what mattered.

"What we cooked was almost irrelevant," said Cooper. "The fact we were cooking together was the most important part."

Mike Webster, executive director of The Society for Building a Healthier Kugluktuk, said this is the final year of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Health Canada's funding, so the board wanted to have a special event that had lasting impacts.

Courtney Arseneau, a cultural support advisor for the society, said it was an incredible three-day whirlwind experience.

"What was really phenomenal to me was seeing everyone come together from all different generations," she said. "We had toddlers there, youth, adolescents, young adults and even some of the eldest people in the community came. It was so nice for all of us to come to the same table and enjoy each other's company and learn from each other, all while eating the most amazing local food. I found that very energizing."

Cooper said he hopes a similar event can happen again. His dream is going more remote and hosting it in Grise Fiord.

In addition to other sponsors, kitchenware company Lagostina donated dozens of pots, pans and cooking utensils to members of the community, and Canadian North reduced freight costs for the team to get everything to Kugluktuk.

More than 450 people attended the three days of feasts, said Webster. A book is being made as part of the followup.

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