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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Mi’kmaq restaurant satisfies Montreal’s growing appetite for Indigenous food

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 19, 2019

“Indigenous food is just trending right now, I think people should know what our ancestors left behind for us.”

Chef Norma Condo

After having lost our GPS on the way there, the Nation was very hungry when we finally found Miqmak Catering Indigenous Kitchen in Pierrefonds on its official opening day. We refreshed ourselves with some chilled Labrador tea before being treated to delicious Indian tacos and a side dish of wild rice with cranberries.

According to Aboriginal Tourism Quebec, this is the only Indigenous-owned restaurant on the island of Montreal. The opening of the new restaurant is timely, given the city’s growing appetite for Indigenous food. 

Their rotating menu includes Algonquin Three Sisters (corn, bean and squash) casserole, Chippewa chicken, bannock (or luskinikn in Mi’kmaq) and salmon cakes garnished with seaweed relish harvested in chef Norma Condo’s home community of Gesgapegiag, a Mi’kmaq community on Quebec’s Gaspé coast.

“My grandmother inspired me for what I’m doing today,” Condo told the Nation. “I used to help her out and now my kids are helping me out. I’m showing them the traditional cultural way of cooking. It’s a family business – some day they’re going to own it.”

It’s never easy owning and operating a restaurant, especially for a single mother of five in an unfamiliar city. Condo moved her family to Montreal in 2016 so she could attend the Pearson School of Culinary Arts after years living in the United States. Just weeks before starting the program, her husband was murdered while staying behind to wrap up their life in Connecticut.

“We didn’t know anybody here in Montreal,” recalled Condo. “We had just moved here – what am I going to do? I faced numerous challenges, but I couldn’t quit because then my kids will see me quit. I had to accept what it was and keep moving on.”

While Condo needed culinary school credentials to work in the province, she says that meeting the requirements opened many doors for her career. During her studies, Aboriginal Tourism Quebec invited her to represent the Mi’kmaq Nation at the Rencontre des Grands Chefs two years in a row. The prestigious culinary event held at Quebec City’s Château Frontenac partners renowned Québécois chefs with Indigenous ambassadors from each Nation to prepare a dish that typifies their culture and traditional food.

“I brought the chef to my community and showed (them) my cultural way of cooking,” Condo explained. “I showed traditional foods and they transform them to today’s culinary way. It’s amazing how other chefs could do so much with so few ingredients.”

Interactions with other chefs at the Château Frontenac also inspired her to start making Labrador tea, a common beverage in numerous Indigenous communities and a plentiful flower in the Gaspé. Although Condo had initially planned to return to Gesgapegiag following her studies, she now feels like her family has found a home in Montreal.

As her culinary reputation grew among the city’s Indigenous community, Condo began a catering business out of her house late last year. As word of mouth rapidly expanded her clientele, she chose her current location because of its size, kitchen facilities and proximity to her home.

“I’ve been here since February but I’ve been keeping it quiet,” Condo said. “I didn’t want to rush into it and clients were just coming in. The catering was only supposed to be something temporary and it got me here. A lot of clients are telling me they’ve been waiting for this for so many years.”

In between securing the necessary permits and remodeling the dining room to its present charming state, Condo found time to lead a cooking demo for thousands of industry professionals at the Restaurants Canada show in Toronto, Canada’s largest food service event. With this year’s “SustainABILITY” theme aligning with key principles behind Indigenous cuisine, she was featured alongside two of the country’s other most prominent Indigenous chefs.

Condo finds herself at the vanguard of a growing interest in Indigenous cuisine, which emphasizes ingredients found across Canada’s lands and oceans, harvested in harmony with the natural environment. After centuries of colonial policies eroding food sovereignty, a new surge of Indigenous restaurateurs are embracing and restoring their culture’s culinary identities.

“Indigenous food is just trending right now,” Condo exclaimed. “I think people should know what our ancestors left behind for us.”

Miqmak Catering Indigenous Kitchen provides Condo a platform to present her most popular traditional recipes except for moose meat, which is illegal to serve in restaurants because of wild game restrictions. While she loves continuing her culture’s traditions and sharing her cooking knowledge with non-Indigenous people, Condo’s preference for natural ingredients also stems from more personal motivations.

“Diabetes is very common to Indigenous people, including my dad,” Condo explained. “He was cut off from what he liked eating before. I took that recipe and modified it using natural ingredients and now he’s back to eating what he was restricted from. That’s why I continue with it.”

Condo’s focus on healthy and tasty options recently earned her a catering opportunity for Air Creebec, providing lunchbox meals for Cree patients flying into Montreal from up north. She has already done a few catering events for the company, using Indigenous food guidelines and her entire menu.

“They loved it,” she said. “I start in a couple of weeks for a trial because they know I’m alone. I’m going to eventually hire help – I have to. They say it’s about 70 people a day, but that’s nothing to me because I usually cater to 500 people.”

Condo is thankful that her two older children help a lot, including her 17-year-old daughter who just graduated high school and is our waitress on this day. The next goal for this family business? Opening another Indigenous restaurant downtown a year from now.

In the meantime, Condo may just become the next celebrity chef. She is doing an Indigenous outdoor show in the coming weeks with Chuck Hughes, a famous chef who hosted the television cooking series Chuck’s Day Off. Her passion, expertise and perseverance are paying off.

“They’re starting a show in Canada, almost like Iron Chef, but I haven’t got a chance to reply yet,” Condo added. “Everything’s been awesome. The past few days have been fast, fast, fast.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.