Victors headed for home bearing 11 medals, 7 of them gold
Native heritage came in for a good deal of attention in Europe recently though on unusual medium: Food.
A Canadian Native team took part for the first time in the international Culinary Olympics held in Frankfurt, Germany in October, competing with chefs from around the world in a demonstration of cooking skills.
The five professional chefs on the team prepared haute cuisine using ingredients typical of traditional aboriginal cooking - wild rice, Arctic char and salmon, musk-ox and caribou, among others.
They also manned a colorful display of Native artifacts and costumes in the large exhibition hall which changed every day to represent a different First Nation. Culinary entries varied daily to highlight the foods of different Canadian aboriginal peoples.
The group's main purpose in going to Frankfurt was to raise awareness of Native culture, and they were successful in this. German television and print media gave them wide coverage, and the Native kiosk was a favorite with the thousands of paying spectators who visited the site during the five days of competition.
But the team's culinary skills also took high honors, winning a total of seven gold, two silver and two bronze medals in different award categories - something none of the chefs had anticipated.
"It's just fantastic - beautiful," said Saskatchewan Native Arnold Olson, 29 , after accepting the gold medals given for dishes based on Cree foods.
"I felt that I was representing the Cree Nation - that the Cree nation won with this."
But Olson, who is currently catering in Toronto, where he has worked for the
past 10 years, points out that competing at this level is hard work. Contestants cook during the night because judging is in the early morning, Chef competitors must maintain concentration on culinary details despite fatigue. Olson says strong team spirit helped the chefs in difficult tasks such as sculpting chocolate.
"Somebody else would take over for a while if you're tired," he said.
How can an aboriginal theme be expressed in the context of elegant restaurant cuisine? On their final days in Frankfurt, the Native team's Cold Table specialties focused on west coast foods. There were gleaming gelatin-coated hors d'oeuvres (based on Pacific seafoods) arranged attractively with oak leaves and driftwood, and entree creations of Campbell River salmon. A platter of mixed Queen Charlotte Petit Fours rounded out the meal."
Participating in the Culinary Olympics is only the first stage in a larger program to promote aboriginal food and cooking. According to team captain David Wolfman, Head Chef with Marriott Management Services in Toronto, a culinary training course for Native youth is planned, and he himself would like to be involved.
He considers the Native team's recognition in Frankfurt is significant "to show aboriginal people what is attainable. That's what is important about the medals."
Other members of the team included Andrew George, 28, of the Wet'Suwetan band near Smithers, B.C. George owns and operates the Toody-Ni Grill and Catering Company in Vancouver, which provides both Canadian and traditional Native fare.
Pastry chef Bertha Skye, 60, from the Six Nations reserve at Ohsweken, Ontario, runs a catering and crafts business. She is also a cultural interpreter and teacher and she performs with the Sky Dance Troupe.
Brian Sappier, 30, a Maliseet from the Tobique reserve in New Brunswick, is working towards a Bachelor's degree in culinary arts at Johnson Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sponsorship for the Native team came from both public and private sources. Where possible, ingredients for the dishes prepared in Frankfurt were purchased from aboriginal suppliers.
The Culinary Olympics, held every fourth year, is regarded as the ultimate competition for food-service professionals, and this year draw hundreds of participants from more than 30 countries.