Haudenosaunee cuisine and culture is about to be thrust into the national spotlight, when viewers across the country tune in to this season’s edition of Top Chef Canada later this month, thanks to Six Nations chef Tawnya Brant.
The renowned chef is vying for the top spot in the country’s most gruelling culinary competition and Haudenosaunee food culture will be on the menu.
Her upcoming presence on the show is already creating a buzz on social media.
“I don’t think there was a time I didn’t ever really cook,” said Brant, 39. “I can remember being five and making grilled cheese sandwiches – things I would never let my five-year-old do now,” she joked.
Brant has worked in the food industry since she was 12.
“I liked it, I really did. It’s nice being able to change somebody’s mood and you can really do that with food. I just really love the industry.”
She attended culinary school for a few years but most of her knowledge is self-taught.
Since then, she’s had a catering business, opened her own restaurant, has a popular social media presence, and is constantly invited by schools to speak about her knowledge.
But it gets frustrating, she says, because they often ask the busy chef to speak for free.
“It’s unfortunate. I’ve invested in myself for decades to learn the things I learned. It’s a little hurtful. I’m going to start sending my fee now. You wanna learn how to cook our food? Go to a longhouse. Everything we learn is from work. I don’t feel like we’re appreciated a lot of the time.”
Brant grew up surrounded by her Mohawk culture and language but wasn’t necessarily taught to cook.
“Working with traditional foods, I had nobody to ask. I just had my mom throwing food at me and was like, ‘figure it out.’ Really, just practice makes perfect. But I think that’s why my cuisine is different because I didn’t have anything limiting me – ‘this is what we do with corn.’ So I just had to taste and go, ‘what would I put this in?’ I think that’s how a lot of my dishes came to be – just trial and error.”
Being able to share her ancestral food knowledge with the world, she says, was an “irreplaceable” experience.
It’s allowed others to experience her culinary artistry far from her hometown restaurant in the heart of Ohsweken called Yawekon – a Mohawk word roughly translated as “it tastes good” in English.
And despite opening in November 2020, during the thick of the Covid pandemic, the little restaurant tucked away in a small-town plaza has been hugely successful.
“Covid was kind of a cool time,” she said.
As she prepared to open her restaurant, her kids were with her while she worked.
“I’ll never forget that time. It gave me time to be with my boys. My career has really fit into my life and that’s something that I’m really grateful for. I could’t be more humbled to know that there are people out there supporting me.”
Serving up a variety of unique dishes infused with traditional Haudenosaunee ingredients,
Yawekon is a fun departure from your regular lunch fare.
At Yawekon, you’ll find some pretty enchanting creations to tickle your tastebuds, like fiddlehead soup, elk taco salad, and mixed berry parfait for dessert, among a host of other intriguing sounding dishes.
The show has already been filmed but the top winner is top secret.
Brant had shut down the restaurant during the summer for filming under the guise of being “on vacation.”
“It was weird because I couldn’t tell anybody except my staff and the people who had to watch the boys.”
The show’s premise challenges contestants to make superb dishes with only certain
ingredients and within a certain timeframe.
It can make for dramatic television and a frenzied cooking experience but Brant handled it all in stride.
“I’m known for keeping a calm, cool, collected kitchen and I think you’ll see that on the show.”
She pushes the palate envelope on the show, introducing the judges to flavours they’ve never experienced before.
“I wanted people who are Indigenous to see somebody who looked like them talking about their food. That’s what I wanted to see on the show. I wanted Canadians to see that same thing – that Indigenous people are here and do have a whole culture they don’t know about and introduce them to a new way of looking at food…and understand that relationship Indigenous people have to their food. There’s been nothing on mainstream television yet introducing Canadians to Indigenous foods.”
Be sure to catch Brant on this season’s Top Chef Canada on Sept. 26 on the Food Network Canada.