Since childhood, chef Christa Bruneau-Guenther has cared for others in her extended family and community, using food to share stories and sustenance. Born in Winnipeg, Christa is a member of Peguis First Nations but grew up partially removed from her traditional Cree and French Métis roots. “The disconnect came from being brought up in an urban city and also the effects of residential schools,” she says. “Growing up in poverty, it’s just about survival every day.”
Although an aunt taught her to make bannock and homemade jam and there were the occasional fishing and foraging trips, Christa’s food journey really began in her 20s when she began to transition from home cook to chef. “Since I had 32 cousins and all I ever did was babysit from when I was eight, I was really good at taking care of others,” she says. At the age of 23, Christa opened up an Indigenous holistic licensed family daycare that helped inner-city children with trauma and other health concerns. She applied for government funding and began developing recipes in accordance with the newly released Canada’s Food Guide for First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
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It was an eyeopener for Christa. “For the first time, I saw ingredients that were related to my Cree culture, such as squash, or pine nuts, and began incorporating them into our food program, getting the children involved in the food culture as well,” she says. “For myself and my staff, who were also Indigenous, we had this new sense of pride and self-worth and an understanding of where we came from.”
In her decade running the daycare, Christa continued her research into recipes and ingredients from her Indigenous heritage, which brought the challenges of recording recipes passed down through oral recounting and the lack of subject-specific recipe books in her local libraries. She began tapping into the community of Indigenous elders, as well as sharing her knowledge with local universities and residents. As a home cook with no restaurant experience or training other than a brief career as a server, Christa eschewed the traditional culinary school path. “Most of my learning was through Food Network, actually. I would watch and write down simple recipes from chefs such as Giada de Laurentiis and Christine Cushing and experiment in my own kitchen,” she says.
When an open space in the Ellice Café and Theatre — formerly a community-subsidized cafe meant to help homeless or displaced people — became available, the owners were looking for someone who would bring a similar aesthetic to the space. Christa opened Feast Café Bistro in Winnipeg’s West End in December 2016, showcasing the simple and affordable recipes that she brought from her home kitchen. The restaurant is already a fixture in providing aid to the homeless through donation initiatives of leftover food and “pay it forward” programs.
Key to Christa’s efforts is accessibility of Indigenous ingredients — which can be a challenge given that the food costs of some harder to find foraged items can be higher than others. Feast uses these ingredients to maximize their flavour while keeping them affordable, such as incorporating sweetgrass, juniper and cedar for a dry rub for bison, sumac or bee pollen for pickling, and bannock as a pizza or sandwich base.
Christa also uses this accessibility ethos in her judging for Wall of Chefs, wanting to promote home cooks and their skill sets, bringing them into her shared community of those who cook for love. “Home cooks may have an advantage: they’re used to looking in their fridge and come up with something that’s healthy and that your family will love,” says Christa. “I want viewers to see that you can do this too, and even though you’re not a highly trained chef, it doesn’t mean that you can’t cook a delicious, pretty looking plate of food that feeds your soul.”