AT NAAGAN — CHEF ZACH KEESHIG’S summer-season tasting-menu restaurant at the Owen Sound Farmers’ Market, on the Bruce Peninsula, in Southwestern Ontario — he creates dishes jointly inspired by his Indigenous heritage and what the land around him has to offer. Keeshig calls his cooking style “progressive Aboriginal,” and he shares his passion for it as an educator as well as on the plate.
“It’s about educating people how to forage responsibly, and then how to use that in Indigenous cooking,” Keeshig says.
A former culinary educator at a non-profit, Keeshig now teaches local grade-school and high-school kids. He takes students at Bluewater District School Board foraging, to harvest cedar, spruce and pine, and then shows them how to produce medicinal beverages from what they take home. He also educates adults through a class that travels to farmers’ markets and showcases programs focused on sourdough bread and medicinal beverages.
All summer long, Keeshig — an alumnus of hyperlocal Eigensinn Farm, north of Toronto — leads by example each weekend at Naagan, which has been operating since 2016. After the daytime market closes, the 13-table café space, overlooking the Sydenham River near Georgian Bay, becomes an intimate setting for a nine-course tasting menu of his progressive Aboriginal cuisine — “things dug out of the ground that day,” he notes, are “on the menu that night.”
In addition to his his contemporary takes on Indigenous staples, such as bannock and pickerel (typically caught the previous day), diners at Naagan savour dishes like wild-rice cracker with shaved cured wild duck that has been smoked with cherries for two weeks, then topped with wild-elderberry powder.
And while Keeshig is rightly proud of Naagan, it’s the sharing of his knowledge — otherwise at risk of disappearing — that stokes an even deeper fire.
“It’s rewarding because I get to pass on what not too many people know about. If even just one of [my students] says to their parents, ‘Hey, we can eat wood sorrel,’ then I’ve done my job.”
And for that, American Express is pleased to present chef and educator Zach Keeshig with the American Express Award for Business Leadership.
Photos: Stef Richardson