By Melisa Luymes
Though only 32, chef Zach Keeshig is already making waves in the culinary world while re-discovering and re-inventing Indigenous food with his high-end pop-up restaurant in Owen Sound, Naagan.
Naagan is pronounced in three syllables (naw-AW-gan) and is the Ojibway word for dish. Keeshig himself is Ojibway and was born on the Neyaashiinigmiing (formerly known as Cape Croker) Reserve on the Bruce Peninsula. He was about 10 years old when his mother moved him and his little brother to Owen Sound, leaving their father.
“I remember watching cooking shows all the time and my mom was gone, so I had to learn how to cook for my brother,” reflects Keeshig. “I even remember when I was young, I was making Campbell soup and pretending I was on a cooking show with my brother,” he laughs.
Keeshig went on to culinary school at Georgian College and was a chef at a local golf course, but grew tired of a la carte cooking, ordering from large global distributors. He went on to work for up-scale restaurants like Micheal Stadtländer’s Eigensinn farm in Singhampton and Langdon Hall in Cambridge, developing his skills with modern cooking techniques and French cuisine before he took a bold step out on his own, and back to his roots.
“It took a while to develop my own style,” says Keeshig. He began about seven years ago at the Owen Sound Farmers’ Market, offering a seven-course tasting menu for a handful of people. He started with the styles he had been taught and gradually found his own way to the unique flavours he offers today. He continues to sell his breads and wild juices at the Saturday market and now offers an exclusive 13-seat ‘pop-up’ restaurant there Saturday and Sunday evenings. By renting the kitchen space for the weekends, he has reduced his overhead costs while he works to grow both his dishes and his customer base.
I was able to get reservations at Naagan for myself and a friend on the August long-weekend and it was unlike anything this country girl has had before. Bouquets of wildflowers hung from the ceiling over the three tables for Sunday’s 6:30pm seating. Keeshig welcomed us and we were served some sourdough bread with freshly-made sage-infused butter to start.
What followed over the next three hours were nine glorious dishes that are difficult to describe and just need to be experienced. With Chef Keeshig and two interns, Trystan and Sage, busy in the market’s kitchen, Katie and Ellery were back and forth with all the courses. The evening included a spelt bannock topped with pickerel and yogurt, a slow roasted onion over a sweet and salty whey sauce, white fish with a cilantro base and pickled service berries, and a potato rosette over cauliflower purée with garlic scape oil. After a choke-cherry sorbet as a palette cleanser, we took 10 minutes to stretch our legs as they reset the room. We came back to duck with nectarine purée, roasted hazelnuts, and berries and then three incredible desserts: a rich sweetgrass ice-cream, wild rice pudding with black walnut and mint, finishing with a perfect melt-in-your-mouth sponge toffee made of maple syrup. All of this was paired with medicinal drinks, starting with cedar tea and the Wild Juices by Naagan, drinks that can also be found at the farmer’s market.
“This is my vision of what Indigenous food is or could be,” says Keeshig. And what a vision it is. The food is exquisite, and the experience is pure art, every dish comes out like a perfect picture –sometimes on a bed of pebbles or leaves– and it is introduced by Keeshig with a small story.
Keeshig says that when he first started out, he wanted to recreate traditional recipes from his Reserve, but soon realized that they had been lost and there was nothing much there to recreate; he would essentially need to invent dishes himself. Even bannock, a quick fried bread that is common in Indigenous communities, is originally from Europe, Keeshig adds.
For millennia, people in the Americas had developed complex societies and trading routes, hunted and farmed, developing many of the foods that the world incorporated into their own cultures: potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, and even cacao. I’ve explored the influence of European colonialism in this summer’s past articles on Indian and Filipino dishes, and I think it is safe to say that it destroyed the food cultures in this area.
Over time, colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples went so far as to become Canadian law. Land was stolen through treaties that have still not been honoured and children were kidnapped to be sent to residential schools where they were abused and stripped of their languages, foods, and cultures. It continued with children being taken out of their families and into foster homes. Don’t believe me? Hop on to Netflix and watch Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, followed by the documentary For Love and then Gather. What our Canadian government did is only now recognized as genocide and it set into motion a generational epidemic of addictions in Indigenous communities that they still struggle with.
It was no different on the Peninsula; treaties between 1836-1861 dwindled the Saugeen and Ojibway lands to small fishing grounds, hunting grounds and Neyaashiinigmiing, which is a 64 square-kilometre peninsula into Georgian Bay that is the Reserve land for the Chippewas of Nawash. Approx-imately 600 people live there, though many more from this band, like Keeshig, have chosen to live elsewhere.
Now, a new generation is going to great lengths to re-discover the cultures that were taken from them. “I’m learning my own culture as I go,” says Keeshig. Keeshig’s neighbour had long been encouraging Zach to forage for mushrooms with him, and when Keeshig was ready, he joined his neighbour in the forest. He hasn’t looked back since. He researched as best he could what types of food his Ojibway ancestors would have eaten from the area, the herbs and berries, duck and duck eggs, the fish, but then he uses the ingredients in incredible new ways. His menu is hyper-local, nearly all foraged or farmed nearby, so it will vary even week to week, depending on what is available.
“I’ve never claimed to be doing traditional food,” he says, “but I was afraid of getting backlash about it.” He was relieved to get the blessing of his community’s elders, and many people from Neyaashiinigmiing have come to the restaurant as well. He also sources from as many Indigenous fishermen, farmers, and businesses as possible.
Keeshig is looking for a place to put down his roots for Naagan, but his hope is that it will be on land that can also be used for farming, having bees, tapping trees and foraging, and to run his educational programming from as well. Not only is it a restaurant, but Naagan is a social enterprise that runs culinary and foraging programs for the Bluewater District School Board throughout the week, connecting the next generation to their local food as well.
“We’re putting something on the map that’s never been here before,” says Keeshig, who is just getting started. His talent is gaining him more publicity as well. Already, Naagan has been praised in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and Canada’s 100 Best. “It feels like it is coming full circle,” Keeshig reflects. “I watched some of the people on TV and now they are inviting me out to their restaurants to come cook.”
I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s quote, “Beauty will save the world.” To me, Zach Keeshig is re-connecting to place and re-inventing this region’s food in the most extraordinarily beautiful way, and he is graciously inviting us all along for the journey. It is well worth it and I’m excited to see his next move. ◊