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Three Sisters stew, dandelion salad, wild rice casserole and roasted venison taste great. But these indigenous dishes also offer insight and understanding about a culture that’s close by but can feel far away.
Educating the city on the real tastes and stories behind indigenous foods is the promise behind Johl Whiteduck Ringuette’s newly launched NishDish Marketeria & Catering on Bloor St. W. near Christie St.
NishDish has been around as a catering company for 12 years, so its dishes are not new. But with a storefront space on busy Bloor, and a grand opening that saw hundreds gather to eat and celebrate Anishinaabe and other indigenous cultures, Ringuette hopes to get his food-related messages out to a wider public.
Ringuette, 49, hails from North Bay and experienced his traditional Anishinaabe heritage through food and time spent outdoors with his family: they fished and trapped, cleaned and cooked rabbits.
He moved to Toronto in 1988 and later worked for Aboriginal Legal Services in its Gladue Court, an indigenous plea court. Then a spiritual leader in the native community “told me I have this other gift,” recalls Ringuette — food.
That brought back memories of cooking with family and working in catering and other food-related jobs over the years. In 2005, Ringuette launched NishDish as a catering company and companion company RingFire to run events.
He used what he already knew and set to researching more Canadian indigenous foods and how they are prepared. He made contacts to source ingredients.
He juggled his day job and catering for the next several years. Demand rose as people increasingly wanted authentic indigenous foods to complement events such as those related to truth and reconciliation.
In 2012, Ringuette quit his day job to focus on catering and to get a restaurant launched. But in 2013, he got into a serious bicycle accident. “I couldn’t even lift a bag of groceries,” he says.
His son, Rory Dakoda, moved back in to help with his physical recovery, and to work in the business. A colleague he’d met at another restaurant, Hywel Tuscano, offered aid, too.
Hailing from the Philippines, Tuscano understood Ringuette’s plans. The two eventually decided to partner on the new venture, with Tuscano serving as sous chef, but it was delayed until this year because of Ringuette’s health. (Ringuette’s daughter Jonah also helps out.)
They got this space last winter and took a few months to get permits and renovations in order. Some of the décor is key: it includes ceiling art that depicts the circular 13 moon calendar — it indicates what you harvest, and when. “It was our calendar before the settlers came,” says Ringuette.
Artist Ren Lonechild transformed the outside of the restaurant to look like a birch tree forest.
The restaurant is open Tuesdays through Sundays until 5 p.m. Since the catering size of the business is booked solid, “the catering guides the menu.” They just make extra, write it down on the space’s chalkboard, and customers can try something new almost every time they visit.
Indigenous-made maple syrup, coffee, moccasins and other wares are also for sale. In future, Ringuette hopes to eke out a side patio for artisans to use to sell their wares.
The room has a capacity for 40 and he plans to fill it with a range of events, seeing it as a food-oriented educational hub. He’s already teaching a course he helped develop for Native Child and Family Services of Toronto on indigenous cuisine.
Ringuette has ambitious plans for more, all fed by the kind of facts, stories and products he used to have to go out and find. “Now, information is being brought to us.”
For instance, he just heard that his ancestors made bread by using cattail stems. He’s about to test it out with his students.
As his own plans mesh with those around him, Ringuette’s bigger goal is to start an indigenous business district. He’d like it to be here on Bloor and he’d like to see others selling and sharing food, products and more to make the country’s true culture and past even easier to find.