Like many chefs, Christa Bruneau-Guenther has been going through a roller-coaster of emotions over the past year. “Constant restrictions and opening and closing have been extremely difficult when you own a restaurant and catering company,” says the owner of Feast Café Bistro in Winnipeg. “We’re all exhausted.”
Bruneau-Guenther is a unique presence within culinary circles. A proud member of the Peguis First Nations, she’s blazed a trail promoting Indigenous cuisine and supporting local and national Indigenous communities. While she was never formally trained as a chef, her family-style approach to baked goods and prepared meals have captured the attention of the culinary community and media outlets.
With her Cree and French Métis roots, Bruneau-Guenther is keenly aware of the struggles of Indigenous business owners and families in need. When she was initially forced to shut the café’s doors, her first thought was how she could help others with her refrigerator and freezer full of perishable goods.
“Indigenous culture is very mindful of food waste and connectedness to the community,” she said. “We didn’t want to have that food go to waste so decided to make whatever we could from it and prepare meal kits for people to buy and donate the community.”
Last fall, she spearheaded an Indigenous Feast Box Fundraising Campaign with Indigenous chefs across Canada to prepare meal kits for distribution to families in need. The campaign raised $47,000 by the end of December. “Certain amounts were given to each business based on how many employees they had and what volumes they could handle. One woman in Nunavut could only do so much in her kitchen space.”
She also worked with colleges and other institutions to amplify the effort. “We connected with Centennial College to help prepare meals for whoever had the most families in need, elders or health issues. A majority of those were Indigenous, but we also helped other people struggling, such as immigrants and people living in very difficult situations.”
Since then, she has had organizations come back, offering to donate funds to produce more kits. “We’re continuing with that but not as full scale as before. Right now we’re really pushing take out and grab-and-go.”
Outside of her fundraising success, Bruneau-Guenther has not been sitting idle. She is on the board of Tourism Canada’s Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations (ICAN) where she works to connect Indigenous chefs across Canada. “We are acting as the voice for Indigenous culinary community. It’s not something we see in mainstream hospitality. We’re always brainstorming.”
She is also in conversations about opening a second location in Winnipeg in preparation for the comeback. “It’s so important to have Indigenous tourism, especially given that domestic travel will be the first to come back. We hope the country will support local and Indigenous businesses in the near future.”
Awareness and support for Indigenous communities is critical for Bruneau-Guenther as the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected those communities in her province. “When you start digging into the numbers, of all the people taking up beds in hospitals, up to 70 per cent are First-Nations people. They are in difficult situations. They aren’t reading the news; they don’t have online experience; some don’t even have a phone or cable, and don’t have a means of transportation to get a vaccine. It’s all a sign of the poverty and the position a lot of those communities are in. It’s a very real issue.”
Her constant goal is to give when and where she can and encourage others to do the same. “Food sovereignty is a real thing and a healthy cooked meal nourishes in more ways than filling your belly.”
Written by Denise Deveau