The long way round to Grandma’s cooking
— by Fred Holliss
Originally from Akwesane Nation in Ontario, indigenous Executive Chef Bill Alexander has landed in a good place. Good for him, good for his family, good for his public works, and fortunately, good for us. He is the Executive Chef of the Little Chief Hotel Restaurant at the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino, and he is proud of the family friendly indigenous cuisine they serve at this quaint upscale-casual location. At 39 he is also one of Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40 for 2019, and the Indigenous Consulting Chef for WestJet, providing what is often the first taste of indigenous cuisine visitors to Canada experience.
Chef Bill grew up with food being a major part of his community lifestyle, with group meals bringing people together to share stories and learn about their neighbours. Cooking with his own ingredients foraged on local lands and harvested by hunting, was very different from what he learned when he went to Chef school at 16, where he had to learn to use ingredients he hadn’t seen before and quantities he wasn’t accustomed to. There he learned a real love of food, and came to realize the effect food had on everyone, not just his culture.
The unfamiliarity did not slow him down though, and at 19 he took his first Head Chef position. It was a shock and at first he wasn’t ready for it, but over time and with completing his apprenticeship hours, he honed his skillsets and at 22 felt ready to travel. Touring the world through Europe, Asia, and into the Antipodes, he found that his Chef skills were transferable, and no matter where he went what he was mostly learning was about food and the role it played in each community.
As an indigenous person, he sought out the indigenous cultures wherever he went. In a lot of places it was quite muted, and it wasn’t until he reached Australia and New Zealand that the contrast really struck him, especially in New Zealand where they really celebrated the indigenous people as an integral part of culture and community. At 30 he was now inspired to come back to Canada and share what he had learned, and share his indigenous roots with others.
Taking a few years to really figure out what he wanted to do, the birth of his daughter 7 years ago inspired him to think deeply about what would really make him happy on every level, not just work, and give him the opportunity to be a real part of raising his daughter. He moved out to Calgary, and about 4 years ago started at Grey Eagle where he feels he is doing what he was meant to do with the culmination of his 20 years of experience. And ironically, as he says, “Now, through all that training, I am cooking recipes that my grandmother taught me when I was a kid.”
Asked about work/life balance, he says he is able to lead a less stressful life because he feels like it’s something that he wants to do, not that he has to do. But it’s difficult. His seven year old daughter asked him recently if he ever said no to any projects. Beyond Chef duties, he is also a regular on a local TV morning show and Chair of the Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations. ICAN is an international not-for-profit bringing together indigenous culinary businesses, and helping teach skills to individual communities so they can learn to forage healthy ingredients from their own lands, and cook them well. He wants to give back, and he wants to spend time with his family, which often work in direct opposition. He says, “As a Chef, you’re always working. The biggest thing I’ve learned is you have to have clear cut times in your life where you’re not working, because the people in your life deserve that time as well.”
He is proud of being able to source most ingredients locally, and all of them from indigenous suppliers. He has his own herb garden, which he wants to be larger, but gleefully acknowledges that Tsuut’ina Nation lands are a big garden. “We have 176 species of mushroom,” and all the local medicinal aspects of horseradish, mint, sage and so on. Bison, venison, elk, rabbit and duck can be hunted locally. “I always say that the land was the original grocery store. And you don’t have to worry about weeding,” he jokes. The furthest away they have to go for ingredients is Quebec, for cheese curds. And of course, their wines are from the Okanagan, often from the Nk’Mip Cellars of the Osoyoos Indian Band.
He feels he is really speaking to what, as a Chef, he can do to promote indigenous culture through the powerful conduit of sharing food and linking people together. By inviting people to his table he can say, “this is a little bit of who we are and what is important to us.”
Between his work at Grey Eagle, on television, mentoring indigenous youth, chairing ICAN, consulting for WestJet and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, and his family life, he stays busy. He feels it is such a great honour to be able to express who he is as a person and what his culture represents, that on a lot of days it doesn’t even feel like work.