Trudy Metcalfe at Ottawa’s Indigenous Summer Solstice Festival in June. Metcalfe was the People’s Choice Winner for her smoked Arctic char with a maple and garam masala glaze. (Photo from Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival Facebook)

Inuk chef Trudy Metcalfe’s sense of flavour

“I’m here because it’s for community”

By Kahlan Miron

When Ottawa caterer Trudy Metcalfe cooks a recipe, she doesn’t focus on making exact measurements. She follows her instincts, including a unique instinct for taste.

“One of the things that I have going for me is, when I read a recipe, I can kind of taste the flavours already,” Metcalfe said in an interview with Nunatsiaq News. “That’s the way I’ve always cooked and I can taste flavours when I think about them.”

“Sometimes [a person isn’t] happy with the way the recipe turned out because they followed the recipe exactly, versus following their own, hopefully, instincts in a sense.… A lot of people [are] like, ‘Oh, I can’t cook.’ I think everybody could cook if they just got excited about it and enjoyed what they were doing. And if you enjoy food and flavours and stuff, you can enjoy cooking.”

Metcalfe, an Inuk who is originally from Nain in Labrador, is known for her country food dishes that are traditional but show a southern influence. Her caribou stew is a popular dish in Ottawa, and her smoked Arctic char with a maple and garam masala glaze won the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Indigenous Summer Solstice Festival in June.

Metcalfe’s instinct for taste helps her curate meals for the people eating them. When cooking for herself, the flavour she ends up with can depend on her mood while cooking. If Metcalfe is cooking for a group, like for family and friends, she’ll “need to find a balance that [is] going to meet everybody’s palate. So I’m not leaving anybody out.”

Some might be surprised to learn that Metcalfe has no formal training. Before her retirement, Metcalfe worked at Larga Baffin instead of at restaurants. But Metcalfe says she’s always enjoyed cooking, from the time she started making food for her family as a child.

And now, Metcalfe says she’s busier and works more than before her retirement.

A lot of her business comes from word of mouth in the community. When people start to plan large events that could have an Inuit cultural element, Metcalfe’s name often comes up.

People keep calling so I must be doing something right, Metcalfe said. “It’s just a natural ability, you know, everybody’s good at something.”

Metcalfe has cooked for events like the Canada 150 Flavours of the North and the 1998 Countdown to Nunavut. But, when deciding whether to accept a job, Metcalfe puts a greater emphasis on how an event serves her community.

For example, Metcalfe is temporarily staying in Iqaluit for the next few months to work as a community chef at the Qajuqturvik Food Centre. She’s made trips like this before, having come to Iqaluit multiple times to cover for cooks at the women’s shelter in Apex who were on vacation.

But if a restaurant had called instead, Metcalfe said, she wouldn’t have accepted the offer. “I’m here because it’s for community.”

In Ottawa, Metcalfe will often cater events that offer a chance to show how Inuit culture is distinct from those of First Nations. In the south, lots of people assume First Nations and Inuit are the same cultures. Metcalfe wants to raise awareness about how unique Inuit identity is compared with other Indigenous groups. Part of that unique character comes through food, and by cooking, Metcalfe can promote awareness.

Metcalfe also supports her community through her choice of ingredients, preferring to source food from local hunters in the Arctic or places that support local hunters. Metcalfe won’t buy farmed food from the south.

“To me, that’s important, because I want to be able to support the communities, I want to be able to support the hunters [in the Arctic]. And that’s one way of supporting it is by buying food. I mean they work hard, it’s hard work to go out and catch the animals and stuff like that.”

That means she won’t take any jobs that don’t give her enough time to bring food down to Ottawa. It goes against what Metcalfe believes and what she works to promote.

It’s also because of her principles that Metcalfe won’t serve a dish she’s created if she doesn’t like the food, even if the customer wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t her best work. “I think as cooks, or as chefs … if we’re cooking for the public, you need to be proud of what we’re serving.”

Metcalfe says she doesn’t need people to pay her compliments, she just wants to know that they’ve enjoyed their meal.

“There’s a lot of struggle in our community. And whatever I can do to help somebody not struggle, even if it’s only for the moment, I don’t expect to change somebody’s life, but if I can make their day a little bit easier, that’s my reward. And that’s how I live.”

Due to multiple attempts to post irrelevant comments, commenting on this story is now closed.

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(3) Comments:

  1. Posted by Yummy! Char. on

    Congratulations on your successes. I know you’ll do wonderfully in your career.
    You know you’re doing well when you make other chefs jealous and they call something stupid like appropriation.

    • Posted by Just some Chef on

      There’s no jealousy in the comments above. Your reading comprehension could use some work. Personally I applaud what this chef is doing.

  2. Posted by vince porter on

    I always knew you would carry that winning smile to great success.

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