We’d heard many great things about Pow Wow Cafe and naturally, we had to check it out. Located right in the heart of Kensington, we sat down for an incredible brunch full of things we’d never had before, presented in some really thoughtful ways. Shawn and team are doing something really special, gifting Toronto with some incredible Indigenous cuisine, and we were lucky enough to sit down with him for a conversation.
Sadi: I guess we just want to start off by asking how business is going these days and how long you guys have been here?
Shawn: We’ve been here since October 2016 and business is great. The year we opened was the same year Nish Dish opened on Bloor and it was just completely by chance or luck, it was like Canada 150, so there was a lot of attention on indigenous things so the media just grabbed it and ran with it.
Andrew: Nice! So tell us about the name behind the restaurant and why you decided to open a restaurant that serves Indigenous food?
SH: Pow Wow Café was born out of—I’ve been serving the Indian taco, which is a dish of pow wows, you go to a pow wow which is like a summer celebration in the native community and there’s drumming and dancing and food vendors. So the beef taco is like the traditional taco that you get at a pow wow basically—
A: Oh wow I didn’t know that
SH: Yeah same with the corn soup and the skaandog those are stereotypical items you’d get at a pow wow, I’ve just sort of “chefified” them a little bit. The beef taco is something I grew up eating every weekend in summer as a kid. Every indigenous person who’s ever been to a pow wow understands what an Indian taco is.
S: Were you ever worried when you put it on your menu if people would respond to it, or did you know like,“this dish is so good, I know it’s going to kill”?
SH: We still do music festivals and we’ll serve like literally three thousand over one weekend—
A: Just that one?
SH: Just the beef taco. We know that it’s a hit. So I wasn’t worried about that at all—I was worried, like would people understand the Indian taco? Like the sort of broader, general public…so the brunch idea—Toronto loves brunch, it’s obvious, Toronto is nuts for brunch—so I was like “ok, if the tacos don’t…can’t hold their own, then the brunch can sort of help that out.” I wanted to do indigenous-inspired food as well at the same time so it works out well because I get to bring in a lot of products from first nations communities. Like with fish it’s from Lake Nipissing first nation, our wild rice comes from another first nation community, we just try to source as much as possible.
A: Do you know how the dish began or the origins of it?
SH: Fry bread or bannock or skaan are sort of three semi-interchangeable terms. It’s all post-contact ingredients—like white flour, white sugar or lard—all these things that were brought over from Europe. Basically when indigenous people were removed from our lands and hunting and fishing and trapping were taken away from us, the Canadian and American governments had rations that were given to indigenous people and those were some of the rations. The dish came out of that. That was what was provided…and ingenuity basically. I think the name skaan is referenced to like, scone from Scotland, because they’re similar ingredients. We do fry bread like pow wow style, it’s fried, but like a lot of people at home will make it and it’s more bannock-y, or like a scone from Scotland. But then certainly, how it evolved into an Indian taco, I don’t know. I don’t know the exact origins of it but every pow wow across Canada, you can get an Indian taco. Across America, into the south, there are Navajo tacos. Online I’ve seen them, the fry bread is like this big, like the size of a plate.
A: Is there a dish that you’re the most proud of serving? Would it be the Indian taco or would it be like something else?
SH: Certainly, the Indian taco, the beef one, it is a delicious meal, I love it, it has so many different—like, hot and crispy and soft and chewy and all the different textures on top, like the cold salad and…it’s all your different food groups really. So certainly I’m proud of that but the brunch is like… We do a new brunch menu—this is our fourth brunch menu since we’ve opened—so we sort of change it twice a year. I’m proud of all those dishes too but the Indian taco in particular for when we do festivals is like, a thing of magic because we do so many in the summer. We’re all over Ontario doing them and actually this past summer we went all the way to Nova Scotia and did a music festival there. So, at those events it’s like, a complete…it’s wicked. The amount of them that we serve and the reaction that we get from the public, it’s insane.
A: Tell us a little bit about you Shawn? How did you get into the restaurant business?
SH: I originally took a high school cooking course in Orangeville just as a joke. I was a pothead back then and I wanted to make munchies and I also thought that girls would like a man who can cook so I took a course. Back then there were general and advanced streams and I was in all advanced courses but cooking was like a general level course. So other students, they didn’t care. They were just shoved there by their guidance counselors. Real teachers were teaching science and math and didn’t want those kids in their class. So I excelled, and the chef there was awesome. There was a job to do, we fed the staff a buffet like two days a week. So there were things to be done and he was like “Shawn can you please chop this, or do this?” It was fun, there was fire and sharp knives. As a kid…I was successful at it like immediately, where the other kids they didn’t care, they were just messing around.
A: And you’ve been in kitchens ever since?
SH: Yeah I did the tour of finer dining restaurants around Orangeville where I grew up, then went to culinary school in Stratford, Ontario.
A: At what point were you like “I’ve got to do my own thing and bring indigenous cuisine…”
SH: I opened my first restaurant in Peterborough when I was 23. I was still in university and I had gone past this little location that was literally 15 feet by 15 feet almost every day and it was a café and the guy who ran it—it was never open. I think he lived in the back. But it was super small and I said to myself if that place ever goes out of business I’m going to rent it and make a restaurant and one day I went by and it said “For Rent” and I called the landlord and met him and rented the place and yeah that was Aasmaabik’s Bakery and Bistro. My name in Ojibwe is Aasmaabik, the Face of the Rock.
A: How long have you been in Toronto now?
SH: Two years.
A: What prompted the move to Toronto?
SH: Through doing all the music festivals and especially the ones in the city here it was obvious that…with Field Trip and the pow wow downtown…people’s reaction was like “where can we get these? Why is no one serving these?” So I knew there was a demand and I always wanted to be in Kensington market. So even years before that, we were always doing festivals and I wanted to see if I could hack it in the city. Like, could I compete with all these other restaurants? I don’t know. Is my food good enough? I don’t know.
S: If you’re not eating at your restaurant, where do you eat in Toronto?
SH: I love this question and forever no one asked it. I’ll give you my top 5. Liberty Shawarma on Spadina is like, the best $15 you can spend in the city—the mixed plate with everything. It’s $15 and it’s off the hook. It’s amazing.
I like Pho Pasteur. It’s 24 hours and the people who work there are amazing. Number 99 and 100 are awesome. Number 16 is great. So I go there like, all the time.
For super, like refined, it’s a new place called Sara by the Food Dudes. It’s on Portland and they’re nailing it. I go to a lot of restaurants and spend a lot of money and often I’m like, it’s not living up to it but there the service is impeccable, the place is beautiful and the food is immaculate. I can’t say enough about that place.
For Southeast Asian I go to Rickshaw on Queen. The chef, she’s awesome and the flavours are just like bonkers…knowing that I’ll go out and eat and be like “I can figure this out, I can fake it or make something close or better,” I go there and I’m like “I have no idea what you’re doing,” the spices and everything that is involved. It’s super busy. It’s super good.
And then, also I like Mono Cliffs Inn. I sort of cut my teeth there as a young chef and it’s north of Orangeville a bit. And they do like bistro fare and it’s really well done. It’s an unpretentious atmosphere and yeah it’s wicked.
A: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would your last meal be?
SH: Cheeseburger and fries. Best cheeseburger in Toronto, hands down, and I’m a serious like aficionado when it comes to cheeseburgers, is Harry’s Charbroiled in Parkdale.
A: I’ve never been there.
SH: Go. Do yourself a favour and get the Plain Jane burger; it’ll change your life. I’m serious. It’s a dingy place; it’s a Grant van Gameren restaurant. But he took it and hasn’t fucked with it other than he made the food amazing. I’ve been to his other restaurants and like…ehhh…but this one is legit.
A: Plain Jane burger.
SH: Plain Jane burger: $16 and it’s awesome.
A: When this first opened, I imagine there were reviews. Did you read reviews; did you pay attention to them? And how did you react?
SH: I don’t know that we actually had reviews per se. There were articles written. I think that reviews are kind of a thing of the past other than like public reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor. But like legitimate reviewers, like professionals, they aren’t terribly interested in a place like this. It’s not refined enough cuisine. I think reviewers in the past, there’s a bunch of Toronto people…I think it still exists but like Toronto Life was going to do a review but they never showed up. They called me and talked to me on the phone and I was like “fucking pathetic.”
A: What is the best part of the job? You’ve been doing this for a long time.
SH: It’s a creative outlet. I don’t have to do the same thing everyday. Even though there is a menu and I have to do it, there’s always progress, you can always do something better and learn. And I get to meet new people every day.
A: What’s the worst part of the job?
SH: There’s long hours. I’m not opposed to that but I work 7 days a week and I’ve created this monster. I don’t know that there is a worst part, for me. I love what I do. I absolutely love it. I have found what I love to do. I wake up and it’s not like “ah man I gotta go to work,” I wake up and it’s like “sweet, what do I get to do today?”
S: If someone were to open up a restaurant what would you tell them?
**SH: It’s a lot of work. It’s hard work. I think it’s a very romantic notion, to open up a restaurant. I think there’s a reason for so many failures in this industry. People get like “Oh you’re a great cook, you should open up a restaurant!” and you end up with restaurants called like, My Mom’s Place. Things like that. What happens is…it’s something to cook at home but it’s another thing to cook for the public day after day after day and be consistent. And realize you’re dealing with cranky people because people come in hungry. They’re miserable when they get here; when they leave they’re ecstatic but it’s one of the only industries where the people you’re dealing with are shitty when they come in but great when they leave. Like, you’ll go get your hair cut and you’ve already ate, you’re pleasant but often people show up at a restaurant and they’re not necessarily pleasant for a couple minutes until you feed them.
Be prepared to work hard if you want to be successful. There’s a lot of chefs and restaurateurs who open a restaurant and they’re not there every day, they’re non-existent, it’s just like an investment or something. I will argue that those restaurants are not as good to eat at. I think it’s important that the restaurateur is there to ensure everything is going correctly.
S: I think that about covers it for us. Thank you so much for your time Shawn, it’s been a real pleasure!
Pow Wow Cafe
213 Augusta Ave