First Look: Kū-kŭm Kitchen combines Indigenous Canadian and French cuisines
Seal tartare from Kū-kŭm Kitchen
Image: Yvonne Tsui
Those who quietly mourned the closing of chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe’s Keriwa Café which dished up aboriginal flavor in its short-lived run in Parkdale will be excited to hear that Toronto is experiencing a renaissance for indigenous cuisine. The new midtown spot Kū-kŭm Kitchen is just one of the restaurants (along with Nish Dish) to lead that cause.
Chef Joseph Shawana(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)
Chef Joseph Shawana of Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island is at the helm. The space, which formerly housed Mogette Bistro, is a rather poetic one for Shawana who is classically trained in French cuisine. He is also the executive chef at Coq of the Walk on College (from the same team behind Snakes and Lattes) which serves more traditional French fare. Last year, when Shawana hosted an indigenous pop-up dinner at Coq of the Walk in celebration of Aboriginal Day the seed was planted for Kū-kŭm.
Shawana named the restaurant Kū-kŭm (Northern Cree for grandmother) in remembrance of just one of the women who gave him his first taste of cooking. The large mural that surrounds the kitchen window is by Anishnawbe sisters Chief Ladybird and Aura Last and honours Shawana’s grandmother, mother and mother-in-law.
Created by Anishnawbe sisters Chief Ladybird and Aura Last the mural honours female energy and harvest with a Three Sisters tribute(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)
It also references the harvest with a Three Sisters tribute, referring to winter squash, maize and climbing beans which are planted together to nourish and feed off each other. The corn acts as a trellis for the beans to climb; the beans add nitrogen to the soil while the squash acts as a pest deterrent.
“I was born and raised on Manitoulin Island and it was hard growing up on a reserve. There was a lot of unemployment which meant very little income for nutrition,” says Shawana.
Meals came in the form of what his family could hunt or forage for and usually consisted of moose, deer, fish, vegetables and fruit. It was relying on Mother Nature’s bounty that taught Shawana the importance of “doing wonderful things with simple ingredients.” Shawana adds “all my recipes are 10 ingredients or less, there’s no need to overwhelm. Each ingredient has to shine but also work together.”
Shawana hopes to use classic French techniques to “interpret my understanding of indigenous food.”
Roasted elk crusted with juniper and spruce tips served with turnip and Jerusalem artichokes(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)
Dishes here will seem both unfamiliar and familiar. For instance, the seal tartare is served with a quail egg, whitefish “caviar” and salmon roe and seasoned with sumac and pepper. Instead of baguette, Shawana uses a duo of bannock (blueberry and traditional). For comparison sake, seal can best be described as having a sort of livery texture, akin to boudin noir.
There’s also a juniper and spruce tip-crusted roast elk dish served with seasonal root vegetables which at the moment include radishes, fingerling potatoes and butternut squash. The demi-glace is concocted with the pan drippings, roasted onion and puréed vegetables and topped with julienned and fried spruce sticks.
Pan-seared halibut with roasted parsnip and onion puree and jerusalem artichoke veloute(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)
The pan-seared halibut with roasted parsnip, onion purée and sunchoke velouté leans more to the French influence. Shawana sources locally as much as possible, vegetables come from within a 100-km radius, elk from an Ontario farm and oysters from the East Coast.
You can also opt for their Experience Menu, a tasting menu for $79 or $119 with wine pairings. The wine list draws heavily from the Niagara region and the restaurant is currently in talks with Manitoulin Brewing Company to bring in their beer.
For dessert, the crème brûlée is made with sweetgrass, just one of the four plants used in the sacred medicines of certain aboriginal cultures. There’s also a pine needle and citrus sorbet topped with dehydrated strawberries and Saskatoon berries.
Kū-kŭm is currently open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday and weekend brunch and lunch service on weekdays are in the works.
Kū-kŭm Kitchen, 581 Mt. Pleasant Rd., 416-519-2638
Dillons method 95 plus beet juice, ginger syrup, lemon, apple, egg whit, sumac and black-pepper(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)
Pine needle and citrus sorbet(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)