Marie-Cecile Kakgoosh Nottaway-Wawatie, who goes by the name Cezin, is an Anishinaabe woman whose Indigenous roots informed her career from a very early age. “What got me started was my passion for fresh food that was around me when I was growing up,” says Cezin. “Beaver, rabbit, muskrat, fish, moose meat, and in the summer we would pick berries.” Cezin was born in Rapid Lake, but raised in Parc de la Verendrye. Currently, she is the owner and operator of Wawatay Catering, which offers a menu of Indigenous cuisine to the Ottawa and Gatineau region.
Certainly, Ottawa—and the rest of Canada—has a vast range of restaurants that make use of both Indigenous ingredients and preparations. In many cases, though, those restaurants bill themselves as “Canadian” rather than Indigenous. While it may well be that restaurateurs don’t want to appropriate the label of indigeneity if they are not of Indigenous heritage themselves, it’s a shame that more restaurants don’t directly credit the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities that gave rise to much of so-called “Canadian” cuisine (and, it bears emphasis that while “Canadian” does occasionally mean poutine and maple syrup, restaurants most often use the term synonymously with a menu of game meats, smoking, curing, and the like).
“It’s a sense of identity,” says Cezin when asked about the blurring of Canadian and Indigenous in the restaurant world. “There are different types of Canadian, and I couldn’t say what’s one person’s Canadian or another person’s.”
Still, by supporting businesses such as Cezin’s, Ottawans can both experience authentic Indigenous cuisine, and also further support marginalized Indigenous communities in the region. “I hire anyone who is willing to work and move quick,” says Cezin. “Usually, it’s students from my community in Kitigan Zibi.”
Cezin’s company further supports her community by paying hunters for their time when she uses their meat. She stresses, though, that she isn’t buying the meat itself, which is frowned upon. “These teenagers still practice the tradition of hunting, and it’s hard work. I pay them for their work,” she explains.
Tradition is a major component of Cezin’s business. “My grandparents were always cooking around the house,” she says. “There was a pot of stew on the stove, there was fish to clean, meat was smoking. We would have seasonal feasts four times a year, thanking the past and thanking the present for what’s to come. The young girls would do the prep work. That was the training of catering.”
Cezin still uses many of the techniques she learned as a young girl in Rapid Lake, including naturally fallen wood for smoking, and cooking over an open fire. She also prefers to use pre-contact ingredients and preparations when possible (for instance, she doesn’t believe in serving Indian tacos, though she does make use of post-contact bannock).
Cezin and her team have catered many high-profile events in Ottawa, including meals at Parliament, Carleton University, the Ottawa District School Board, events for First Nations organizations, and many more. Her menu features such creations as bison meat balls, salmon tartare, and cinnamon bannock. Her business continues to grow and she continues to employ local help from Kitigan Zibi. This year, her goal is to build a professional kitchen in order to take on more clients. “I’m just meant to do it,” says Cezin.