Chef George Lenser| Image source: concordia.ca
We all love our mothers…right? Many of them inspire us to be the best we can be and nudge us in the right direction. Or, in the case of George Lenser, “trick” him into going in the right direction. In an interview with CBC Montréal earlier this year, Lenser said the reason why he took on his first cooking job was to pay for his ticket back home for a summer visit with her. She originally promised to pay for his ticket back but over the summer those plans changed. Sadly, two years after finding his passion his mother passed away. But it was that first nudge that led him into a career as an emerging chef with ambitions to open up his own business.
Fast forward 9 years and Lenser is now heading kitchen operations for the 27th annual Montréal First Peoples’ Festival. Lenser met up with Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine before the festival to talk candidly about his career ambitions and why it’s important to create more Indigenous representation everywhere.
MM: You will be managing the kitchen for the First People’s Festival in Montréal early August. What can people expect to taste?
GL: The numbers are so high, so I’m kind of limited to what I can do. I’m trying to make good food that I can sling out very quickly. I’m just going to amp it up a little bit, but at the same time hammer food out for thousands of people, at least over two thousand. [The festival organizers] already got a cool concept going on where they want people to feel like they’re at a campfire with 3 bonfires and deer hot dogs on the menu.
MM: You grew up on the West Coast and have been working as a chef in Montréal for a couple of years now. What inspired you to pursue a career in culinary arts so far away from home?
GL: It just happened. I was working in a cafes, diners and pubs in Vancouver and knew I wanted to go above that. I wanted to learn a lot more. I knew I was just a big fish in a little pond there and needed to go check out what was it like in the big leagues. Soon after, I got in for a working interview at Joe Beef in Montréal and jumped on it. They said come by and try out, if we like you maybe we will hire you. I persisted and showed up everyday until they hired me.
MM: Montréal is lacking an Indigenous food scene and you want to change that by opening up your own restaurant. Why is it important to create a growth in Indigenous cuisine?
GL: I think it’s important to have a growth for everything, not just Indigenous cuisine but for Indigenous culture. There’s a lack of representation for Indigenous people everywhere, whether it’s music, acting, culinary, or whatever else. It’s pretty fucking racist. It’s funny cause you see so many restaurants that say they cook pure Canadian food or pure American food.
MM: They mean white Canadian.
GL: Yes. It’s like the place called Bannock on Queen Street [in Toronto], which is owned by some white Scottish dude, who is all about cooking “unapologetically Canadian food.” Why are you unapologetic about this? Just hearing about these restaurants is both annoying and frustrating.
MM: If you do open a restaurant what kind of concept do you envision creating? Will it be more casual or high end? Why?
GL: It would definitely be high end, with a lot of art all over the walls, all for sale. I want it look very West Coast style with lots of carvings. I keep on dreaming about opening up these fancy restaurants, but would want to start small and see how it works out. If I do good, I would keep on expanding my idea. There’s so much for me to learn still and I don’t want to gamble too much. I probably would open a restaurant in Vancouver. As much as I love Montréal and would love to open the first high end Indigenous restaurant there because it’s such a foodies/chef city- it’s just not my home.
MM: In a couple of your past interviews you tell the story of an Indigenous boy who used to milk cows in a residential school and sneak cream away in his shoe after to share with his friends, creating what is now créme fraîche. Why is this such an important for you story to share?
GL: I really like that story because there are some Indigenous chefs that really focus on pre-colonial times, which is really cool. I don’t feel like that’s us anymore. It’s cool to understand where we came from and how we used to live. If that’s what they want to do, fuck yeah. I want to do something that really represents us now. Our diets have changed drastically, so has our culture, and ultimately our taste buds are completely different. I would like to showcase that. I don’t want to stay in this romanticized version of us in pre-contact times.
MM: If you only had to cook one last meal for yourself and/or your loved ones what would that be?
GL: It’s something my mom would cook me before she passed away. It’s just super simple: pork chops with Campbell’s mushroom soup and rice. It’s so simple and we were a big family. I would cook it just for the memories. I’m a strong believer in that you could summon someone’s energy, spirit or memory through food.