People of Georgian: Chef forages for inspiration with ‘progressive Aboriginal’ cooking

March 10, 2023

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People of Georgian: Meet Zach Keeshig

I wanted to be a cook since I was just a young guy.

My brother makes fun of me to this day. I used to sit him down and give him Campbell’s soup and pretend I was on a cooking show.

A person with short brown hair, white T-shirt and purple apron, stands outside in front of green grass and tress and gestures with their hands.
Zach has had a love of cooking since he was a kid.

From making spaghetti, to finding the art in culinary

One of us were bound to be cooks.

When we were little, we were always going to family dinners.

My mother was working quite a bit when we were younger, so I was making spaghetti when I was in, like, Grade 5, cooking chicken and stuff like that. 

I moved out pretty young and needed a job after school, so I actually did a co-op to be a plumber.

But then I started working in restaurants, and I fell in love with the art aspect of what you can do with culinary.

Foraging a major inspiration

I worked my way up to different higher-end restaurants, and the more higher-end restaurants you get to, the more artistic things are and that’s what I enjoyed.

I was introduced to this man named Michael Stadtlander, who was doing a farm-to-table tasting menu in his farmhouse in Singhampton. I ended up doing a stage with him, like an unpaid internship, and was inspired to do something similar in Owen Sound.

We’re hyper focused on foraging and sourcing ingredients locally.

Whenever we can, we go out foraging for wild herbs, wild plants we can introduce into dishes.

A close-up of a person's two hands holding green plants they foraged from the ground.
Foraging for wild herbs and plant is part of Zach’s cooking style.

Developing ‘progressive Aboriginal’ cooking

It’s funny how I got more into foraging.

My mother had this neighbour who’s sort of a local mushroom guru around Owen Sound, and he had bugged me for a couple years, while I was attending Georgian, to go out foraging wild mushrooms with him.

At the time I thought he was this crazy hippie going foraging for psychedelic mushrooms or something, but as I started progressing in restaurants and they were using all these wild mushrooms and herbs, I went back to Owen Sound and said, ‘Teach me your ways,’ you know what I mean?

After that, I took it upon myself to start learning more about medicinal plants – needles from trees, oak leaves – that you can introduce into food.

It takes a while to develop your own style of cooking but foraging really shaped that for me.

That’s why we call our cooking progressive Aboriginal.

A flyer with a drawing of a person with short, black hair, white shirt and black apron. Text: Naagan by Zach Keeshig. Locally sourced, grown, foraged food since 2016. Progressive Aboriginal Cuisine.
Zach runs Naagan out of the Owen Sound Farmer’s Market.

Creating dishes from medicinal plants, herbs used by Indigenous People

When I’m researching and finding out what Indigenous People would use for medicine, we’re able to create dishes with that now.

We did an ice cream that was made from duck eggs that was flavoured with sweet woodruff and oak leaves. It’s kind of amazing.

When peaches were in season, we wanted to make a medicinal tea, so we foraged medicinal, edible plants because that’s what Indigenous People would do.

We made a peach tea flavoured with pine needles and basil. We’ve also been making ginger beer, and we made a black currant juice that’s been flavoured with juniper.

Ingredients as local as possible

We also want to use Canadian, Ontarian and local products in our cooking, so we stopped using vanilla in our cooking. We’ve had to go out and find other things that taste like that, such as sweetgrass or sweet woodruff.

Being creative with tasting menus is what it’s all about and brings it back to my style of cooking. I really enjoy creating dishes and feeding people.

Zach Keeshig, a chef from the Cape Croker Nawash reserve, who studied in the Culinary Skills program at Georgian’s Owen Sound Campus. Zach runs Naagan at the Owen Sound Farmers’ Market, putting together nine-course tasting menus. Follow Zach on Instagram.

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