For Edmonton-based chef Scott Jonathan Iserhoff, “food is a way to build people up.” Scott grew up in Timmins, Ontario but loved the time he spent with his family much further north at the Attawapiskat – ᐋᐦᑕᐙᐱᐢᑲᑐᐎ ᐃᓂᓂᐧᐊᐠ Āhtawāpiskatowi ininiwak – First Nation.
Attawapiskat is an isolated community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River close to James Bay. That’s 500 kilometers north of Timmins.
The people of Attawapiskat are Mushkego, Omushkego James Bay Cree and their language is Swampy Cree. Knowledge of trapping, hunting, fishing and gathering berries and plants is preserved in the culture. At first glance the land – which is mostly the stunted black spruce and wet grassy bogs of Muskeg – might not seem supportive. But geese, ducks, caribou, moose, beaver, bear, wolves, wolverine, marten, rabbit, muskrat, otter and other species thrive here. So, the First People of this land thrived along with them for thousands of years before colonization.
Scott remembers being around food all the time on his visits and thinking nothing special of it. “I would go fishing and we’d gather around teepees where my grandparents, aunties and uncles would be smoking meat.” When air flights became unaffordable Scott and his family faced a huge barrier to spending time with their family. Still food would become central to his life journey.
A Chef’s Journey
During his teen years in Timmins, Scott found watching cooking shows on television inspiring. He watched a lot of them. “I loved Cooking with the Wolfman with chef David Wolfman. He was our only representation on TV. So when my Mom asked me what I wanted to be, I told her, ‘I’ll be a chef.’”
Scott went to Fanshawe College Culinary School in London, Ontario after high school. But, after a year of learning French technique only, he became bored. “I wanted to be cooking venison, bison and duck. So, I applied for jobs in the industry and did my culinary training hands-on while studying business and hotel management through night classes.”
After 15 years of working 12 hour days and 10 of those years in downtown Toronto’s restaurant scene Scott says, “I was getting burnt out. I knew it was happening because I wasn’t enjoying cooking as much. I loved it. But I found those big city kitchens toxic. There was a lot of anger and I believe that translates negatively to food.”
“In the Indigenous culture you do things in good ways with good intentions – especially food. We consider it medicine. And now, they are proving that gut health is the majority of your health.”
Scott applied for a job in Edmonton at the youth emergency services as the kitchen coordinator. He knew he would benefit from working regular hours. And, he discovered a lot of the youth at the center were Indigenous. Scott was surprised by the impact his cooking could have on them.
“They found it comforting to find the food I was cooking there. I cooked things like bannock and stews of pork neck bones – the delicate parts that are so flavourful. It was healing for them to eat good food.” While Scott contributed to the health of vulnerable youth, the experience helped him too. “I got my passion back. I started focusing on my own food and learning more about the culture. I was able to connect with the Elders to learn more.”
A Business Journey
Word got out about Scott’s cooking skills. He started to get calls to do catering from the University of Alberta for their young Indigenous women’s circle.
“I thought, I’m not a caterer but yes, I’ll do this. They gave me free reign. I thought back to my favourite childhood dishes from my parents and grandparents and made those things. I really enjoyed it and got great feedback. People would say, ‘Your cooking reminds me of when I grew up.’ Now, I wake up and think about how I can do dishes inspired by my life story and Indigenous ingredients.”
Word of mouth continued to spread and soon Scott had bookings from the City of Edmonton and Government of Alberta. That required becoming a formal business so in 2017, Pei Pei Chei Ow (pronounced “pe-pe-s-chew”) was born.
Pei Pei Chei Ow means robin in the Omushkegowin (Swampy Cree) language. It was the name given to Scott by his Moshom (grandpa), Louis Shisheesh, in his childhood. “The name gives representation in our industry.”
The pandemic has thrown a few curve balls at all businesses but the food industry has had to be especially creative to survive. Scott has adapted by offering online classes.
Pei Pei Chei Ow is also adapting their catering business to include a new food kiosk offering at the Edmonton Downtown Farmers’ Market. While most of the market is only open on weekends, the Pei Pei Chei Ow kiosk will be available for take out five days a week. The menu will be seasonal and feature a rotation of contemporary Indigenous cuisine. “We had to eat SPAM rations but now we’ll have some fun with that. I hope to have duck, rabbit and quail on the menu and to be able to share the significance of all the food.”
Scott is also taking advantage of this time to learn from the First Nations in Alberta including the Cree of Saddle Lake and Maskwacis. “I went birch tapping with friends from here recently. Drinking birch water is medicine. There are so many minerals and electrolytes in it.”
He’s also enjoying foraging in Edmonton’s River Valley. “Knowledge of foraging came from my parents. There’s rules like not over-foraging, taking a bit from each bush, having good intentions while harvesting and always laying down tobacco first as an offering to the earth.”
Another opportunity of late is the invitation to teach at Indigenous culture camps. “It’s amazing to connect with youth, to break down barriers and teach them an approach to cooking, to share the message that they can study anything and to make dinner together.”
“The people are hungry for Indigenous representation in mentors. I didn’t realize all my training would lead to this. But, it makes sense now. I’m responsible and committed.”
At 34 years old, Scott says he hasn’t earned the right to be called an Elder. But, it will certainly be exciting to watch him grow into that name. I hope to have more chances to learn from him. And a good place to start will be one of his recipe’s that will be next up on the blog.
Note: This post is NOT sponsored. Full disclosure: My business Alberta Food Tours is partnering with Pei Pei Chei Ow to bring Scott’s food to more people through our Alberta Cares Packages. Scott’s Haskap Jam and Bannock Mix will be featured in our Foraged Flavours Alberta Cares Package.