Celebrating Milestones: Northern Lights College's Inaugural Professional Cook Indigenous Cohort Concludes First Year

Culinary students and instructor standing against black cloth backdrop
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The Northern Lights College is one of the few schools in the province offering the Professional Cook Indigenous content apprenticeship program. Chef Michael French leads a class of five students who recently completed their program last month.

The Northern Lights College (NLC) Dawson Creek campus is one of the few schools in the province offering the Professional Cook Indigenous content apprenticeship program. Chef Michael French leads a class of five students who recently completed their first year of the program last month in May 2024. Calling themselves the Rising Bears, this cohort of talented women were the first at the college to participate in this program. To help remove any barriers and support for participation, the North East Native Advancing Society (NENAS) provided financial assistance and wraparound supports for the students. 

For over 25 years, Chef French has been an instructor for the Cook program at the Northern Lights College and is a Certified Chef de Cuisine (CCC) who has worked in restaurants all over the world. He was approached by NLC’s Dean of Trades and Apprenticeships, Rod Cork, and SkilledTradesBC’s Director of Truth and Reconciliation, Andrew George, to lead their inaugural Professional Cook Indigenous content program because of his background in the Indigenous community and experience teaching Indigenous cooking. 

Cooking over the fire, Leslie and Malcolm
Leslie and Malcolm tending to the open fire pit at the college. Photo courtesy of NLC.


Thirty per cent of the curriculum includes Indigenous methods of preparing food and cooking, in addition to the traditional Professional Cook content like learning to work in a kitchen and classical competencies. During their Level 1 year, students learned to use and honor ingredients like buffalo, elk, and rabbit, to create pemmican, bannock, and stews. 

Recognizing the diversity of Indigenous peoples, the course is meant to be regionally specific, and permission was asked for and granted from Elders. NLC resides on the traditional territories of the Cree, Dene, Dunne-Za, Kaska, Saulteau, Tse’Khene, Tahltan, and Tlingit, and recognizes members of the Metis Nation.

“We look at what’s the best of all worlds and try to incorporate what we can into this program,” explained Chef French, “Students are going to carry this forward and be the traditional knowledge holders of these teachings.” He loves hearing that his students are excited to share what they’ve learned with their families and communities. 

Culinary students making chocolate embellishments and shaving white chocolate with instructor watching.
Left: Chef French with Leslie, Right: Monique shaving chocolate


For Leslie Munch, working with food runs in her family. Her father was a baker and eventually went on to do his Level 2 apprenticeship until he passed away. Leslie’s interest in cooking started when she joined her mother to cook at a camp 20 years ago. In 2017, they started their own catering business together and acquired a food trailer.

“I really want my career to excel, and I really want for our catering and food trailer [to excel]. This is why I’m here,” she emphasized. “I want to learn different techniques so that I’m making different foods. I want to bring more of our cultural foods to the food trailer so that everybody can enjoy it.”

Different techniques the students have gained include learning to forage and smoke with sweetgrass, a traditional Indigenous medicine, as well as how to honour where it came from. The College worked closely with local government to ensure that an open fire pit could be installed on campus so that students could learn this traditional method of cooking. 

Chef and student apprentice preparing duck
Chef French with alumni student Tina


Beyond the dishes, techniques, and ingredients, there is also a cultural component. 

“This program is really about the traditional way of life: honoring the food, honoring the animals, honoring the spirits, everything,” said student Monique Roy. “All the different things about the herbs, the berries and the medicinal uses of them.” 

Bannock is baked today using modern ingredients like baking powder, but how did they acquire this ingredient traditionally in the past?

“If you take the birch, white birch, and you burn it, you can use that ash. The white ash – that’s your baking powder,” explained Monique. “Malcolm, our resident Elder, he gave us a book that compiled of all the different herbs and how to harvest them.”

NLC has an established Indigenous Education department, which ensures that students have access to local elders. Malcolm Supernault is the lead Elders for this cohort and brings his unique perspective and teachings to the class.

Students showing off a dish of food they created.
Leslie, Malcolm, and Carol


“It's been great as the students seem to be very open to learning,” mentioned Malcolm, “and my way of teaching is that I'm here to teach you, but I'm here to learn from you as well.” He speaks to how students have shared their experiences from their communities, and how things are done a little differently from his experience as a member of the Cree and Metis communities.

As an Elder for the class, he visits the students a few times each week. One of the teachings Malcolm shared is evident in the name of their cohort – the Rising Bears, emphasizing that as part of life, bears will hibernate and sleep during the winter, but there will come a time again where they will undoubtedly rise again.

Other elders, including Louise Isador (Granny Lou), Florance Johnston, Dean Dokkie, and Ken Cameron, provided guidance and teachings as well.

Carol Paynter started her career in a corporate setting but ever since getting a food truck, she has been wanting to improve upon her culinary experience. Prior to starting this program, she did not expect to learn so much about herself and her Indigenous background.

“We've learned so much with Elders coming in and what they taught us is to really respect ourselves and really keep going,” said Carol. “I didn't think I'd learn as much as I have by being in this course, and I really also love the Elders, what they've taught us with medicine and the foraging from the land and everything.”

Culinary student making bannock
Brianna making bannock

Brianna Wolf signed up for the program in part due to her love for cooking and growing up cooking over a campfire in the summer. “I like how Malcolm knew about the different types of wood and what to use for the taste and flavor from the wood.”

Although Level 2 of the program has not been scheduled yet, many of the students are looking forward to continuing their culinary journey. 

“I'm excited because I also want to go on to my Level 2 and then I eventually want to get my Red Seal,” said Leslie, “And that's my biggest goal is to reach that Red Seal.”

Culinary student preparing vegetables in kitchen
Anita preparing vegetables

For Anita Lerocque, she expressed interest in having her own restaurant one day. “I’d like to do something and have my own garden and maybe a chicken coop so I get my own produce instead of having to go and get it from the store and save my own money. And I'd like to learn how to grow certain plants.”

During the year, the Rising Bears have soared to new heights and have taken on exciting challenges. They participated in the Fusion Face-Off Competition with all the Level 1 Professional Cook students and even hosted an Elders appreciation meal, demonstrating all that they were taught during the year and expressing their gratitude for their Elders. 

“This program is kind of a door opener for a lot of people and once they've taken this program it, it will give them some confidence.” says Malcolm. 

Newfound confidence in themselves is something these students will carry on into their careers and life, no matter what path they end up choosing.