|Native Son: Chef Aaron Bear Robe|
|Written by Dee Hobsbawn-Smith|
|Monday, 02 April 2012 00:00|
Keriwa offers indigenous cuisine made new by a musician-chef who riffs on the classics
The 2008 Chefs’ Congress at Eigensinn Farm north of Toronto was a pivotal experience for Aaron Bear Robe. The budding chef made bison short rib perogies over an open fire on the hillside with his mentor and boss, chef Scott Pohorelic of Calgary’s River Café. When the Congress ended, Bear Robe stayed on for six months as an apprentice to Michael Stadtländer.
“From Scott, I learned the biggest things — techniques and principles, philosophically as well as cooking and passion for local sustainable food,” Bear Robe recounts. Of Stadtländer, he says, “Michael is a cook’s cook and an artist. While I was there, I helped build Haisai. When I opened Keriwa, I took that on in spirit — I built and designed everything.”
Bear Robe, a classically trained violinist with the chops to play with the Calgary Symphony Orchestra at a young age, had planned to become a musician and study philosophy. But, at 21, he realized his part-time cooking jobs were overriding his musical interests. “I don’t miss music,” he says. “I throw my creative energy into cooking. Cooking is art school, an employable skill, a trade and a business model. It’s real-time art.”
It’s an art-form Bear Robe’s practising every day at Keriwa Café, which he opened in Toronto in 2011 after spending a year at the city’s iconic Splendido restaurant. The new restaurant, has a narrow 40-seat dining room set off by stone and wood. A dramatic seven-foot carbon-steel cut-out of an eagle feather suspended from the ceiling, sets the tone.
First and foremost, Bear Robe honours local, regional and seasonal ingredients; then the hat comes off in a nod to his Siksika Nation upbringing in and around Calgary. “We’ve never had a bison burger,” he says acerbically of Keriwa’s menu, but the keystone species of the Prairies makes appearances in other guises. Most recently he brined, braised and shredded bison tongue for a dish of pemmican-enriched steamed British-style dumplings ($15). His emphasis on technique is exemplified by bison brisket, braised for two days, then brined to downplay the meat’s absence of intramuscular fat. “The notion of what aboriginal culture is goes deeper than food,” he observes. “At Keriwa, we serve Canadian food, based on terroir, as it is in every culture in the world.”
Such cooking rests on the bedrock of relationships. “I learned from Scott to form true partnerships and friendships, a philosophy of knowing the people who take the time and effort to grow our food,” he says. Vicki’s Veggies in Prince Edward County are his go-to for good groceries. Cold-smoked whitefish appears with blini on a Stadtländer-inspired slab of wood, and trout is sourced from Sean Lovell’s Ocean Wise-certified aquaculture facility in Port Dover, Ont.
Bear Robe’s menu changes monthly, but it follows a rhythm. “[It’s] like a jazz musician’s improv, you already know the scales and the chords,” he says. “Food is fashion, and you gotta be keeping up.”
The chef is also determined to stay true to his culinary philosophy. “I want to buck the trend that says you can’t have a thriving business that focuses on local and organic,” says the 28-year-old father and husband.