Aboriginal chefs show how it’s done in Alberni

Dolly McRae and Annie Watts will create a traditional salmon feast over an open fire on an episode of Untamed Gourmet next week.

Dolly McRae

Annie Watts and a film crew climb aboard a small commercial fishing vessel, motoring down the Alberni Inlet as daylight wanes, ready for some night fishing.

Some of those aboard the vessel, new to the Alberni Valley, are amazed to see dolphins during their trip. Others, like director/ producer Ian Toews, were thrust into action, reeling in nets as Watts caught fresh salmon.

Watts and her mother, Dolly McRae—both accomplished chefs and cookbook authors—will create a traditional salmon feast over an open fire with those fish on an episode of Untamed Gourmet next week.

The episode, debuting on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) on Tuesday, Sept. 17, follows the two chefs as they  gather ingredients to prepare a feast together, cooking over an open fire.

“We went on a salmon fishing trip at night with Annie,” said Untamed Gourmet director and producer Ian Toews, describing the show as a documenting of the process of hunting, gathering and eating food.

“And we went out with Dolly to gather wild fruits and berries,” he said.

McRae brought them to areas around the Alberni Valley to gather wild crab apples, cherries and kelp for her dishes.

This is the second season of Untamed Gourmet which showcases Canadian chefs gathering ingredients native to the area to prepare a dish. Most of the chefs featured are aboriginal, which makes sense when it comes to showcasing wild, Canadian food, Toews explained.

“You can’t have a wild food show without talking to aboriginals,” Toews said. “First Nation people in Canada have a very unique history; they lived off of the land.”

Toews contacted McRae and Watts because of their notoriety. The mother and daughter team previously owned and operated Liliget Feast House, a popular Vancouver restaurant that served First Nations cuisine and was often frequented by celebrities.

The two also co-wrote a cookbook called Where People Feast: An Indigenous People’s Cookbook and their cooking is often featured in the media.

“In our research, looking for aboriginal chefs and food preparers, we very quickly discovered them,” Toews said. “For over a decade their restaurant was a Vancouver hot spot.”

McRae never intentionally set out to run a restaurant. She said she learned how to cook from her mother and that her daughter is the “real” chef as Watts has gone to cooking school.

McRae fell into it in the early 1990s, when she was working on getting a Masters degree at UBC.

While at school she heard about a native youth group at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology that needed to raise $1,600 for a field trip.

She volunteered to help them by making and selling bannock, as long as they participated in the making of it too. From a 10 kg bag of flour, McRae and the students were able to make 100 pieces of bannock and sold them for $1 each. In five days, they raised $1,300.

By the end of the summer, McRae had $25,000 in her bank account.

“We were selling so much bannock,” McRae explained. “I even had to rent a bread mixer from a donut place because I couldn’t do it on my own anymore.”

From there, McRae ended up selling bannock from a food cart, which then led to her opening up a restaurant near Vancouver’s English Bay.

“I had a wonderful 12 years there,” McRae said. She only closed the restaurant because the owner of the property wanted to build condos.

“We had famous people come in. Kim Cattrall, she went to the Vancouver Sun saying this was the best restaurant in Vancouver. Pierre Trudeau would bring his son Justin to eat there.”

For the television show, McRae and Watts prepared salmon in a number of different ways. One salmon dish is fanned out like a book with half of it smoked and half of it cooked. Other dishes prepared include wind dried salmon and salmon grilled over the fire.

The menu also includes herring roe on kelp with eulachon, pine needle tea and McRae’s signature bannock, only this time made as wild berry bannock bread pudding.

McRae said she wanted to showcase dishes that she was used to eating, which were handed down from her mother.

McRae said she enjoyed the experience of being filmed for the episode in August last year.

“We had lots of people following us,” she said.

“[The film crew] were really excited and exhausted from the night fishing.”

While McRae is retired from the restaurant business, people can still get a taste of her bannock, which she makes fresh and sells at the Farmers’ Market at Harbour Quay on Saturdays.

Untamed Gourmet began on Sept. 3 and travels to different locales across Canada. The Port Alberni segment airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on APTN.

Untamed Gourmet moves to the Northwest Territories on Sept. 24 then returns to Vancouver Island, this time in the Cowichan Valley, on Oct. 1.