By Ella Jane Myers
A surge in hunger for Indigenous culinary experiences is drawing travellers from around the world to Northern Ontario, and, taking a Sudbury chef around the country.
Hiawatha Osawamick describes her business, Hiawatha’s Catering, as “Ontario’s premier Indigenous caterer.”
For over a decade, Osawamick has been serving up her delicious versions of traditional Indigenous dishes. Specialties include wild rice casserole, bison stew, corn soup, bannock, and strawberry pow wow shortcake.
Osawamick is a born cook. When she was young, her mother’s family ran a catering business, so she was surrounded by cooks who love food.
“I grew up watching my grandma and my aunts, the whole family laughing in the kitchen,” said Osawamick. “I saw the love they had, the family bonding time.”
It felt natural then to take a culinary apprenticeship program at Georgian College in Barrie. She got a job in the kitchen at Casino Rama in 2001.
By 2008, Osawamick was ready to try something new. She launched her own catering business in Toronto. In the years that followed, her signature dishes proved popular, and as more people tried her food, she got busier and busier.
“Usually if they hired me once, they’d hire me again,” she said.
“The highlight for me is the compliments I get from people when they eat my food.”
Eventually, Osawamick relocated her business to Sudbury, and in 2017, she rebranded her company as Hiawatha’s Catering.
That same year she worked her biggest event yet: The World Indigenous Conference in Toronto.
She was responsible for cooking for 2,600 people for the opening ceremonies, lunches, and closing gala. She had 45 staff and three commercial kitchens churning out smoked duck, fried pickerel, and maple-glazed elk meatballs.
Osawamick seen a lot of other changes in the industry since first starting out.
“I’m seeing that there’s more Indigenous cooks. Especially youth and women. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many Indigenous women cooking,” she said. “At places like Casino Rama, it was a male-dominated workplace.”
There’s also been a shift toward greener practices in the food industry, something Osawamick takes seriously.
“We try to have zero waste, there are palm leaf plates, no plastic or styrofoam,” said Osawamick. “I care about the environment, not only for my daughters but for future generations. It actually helps me get these big catering jobs, because everybody’s looking at eco-friendly.”
In 2018, Hiawatha’s Catering was even named an Environmental Champion by Green Economy North. “There’s a real hunger here for Indigenous food tourism,” explained Kevin Eshkawkogan, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO). “Food is a great way to tell that story in a way that everyone is comfortable.”
The ITO has launched a strategy to capitalize on this interest, in partnership with Destination Northern Ontario, the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
The goal is to link up and support Indigenous food producers and businesses in the region: people like Osawamick, and the producers and suppliers of the various speciality ingredients she uses.
The strategy notes the Indigenous tourism sector grew by 23 percent between 2014 and 2017, and shows no signs of slowing down.
“There’s not enough Indigenous food tourism in Northern Ontario, we want to create some structure for an environment for that to happen,” said Eshkawkogan. “In five years we want the Indigenous food tourism sector to be very prominent and to be at the forefront of all the other tourism in Ontario.”
In the meantime, Osawamick keeps working to put Indigenous cuisine on the table as she looks to expand her offerings.
But, she noted that to her, it doesn’t even feel like work.
“It’s not really a job for me,” said Osawamick. “I love it, it’s my passion, so I see it as fun.”