When Tawnya Brant began her culinary endeavours, she was 12 years old. Waiting tables at a local café, helping in the kitchen, and serving customers with a smile, her work ethic would form the basis of a career path now twenty-nine years in the making.
Chef Tawnya Brant’s Culinary Path
As an accomplished Indigenous chef, Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) woman, and mother of 2, Tawnya reflects on those humble beginnings as a firm, albeit unconventional, foundation. For her, these initiations into the epicurean world launched a lifetime of learning, preparing, and imparting knowledge of traditional sustenance.
Breaking the Mould
Twenty years after first setting foot in a restaurant atmosphere, while training with her mentor in a franchise establishment for East Side Mario’s and the Boston Pizza chains, Chef Brant said no to 80-hour work weeks – a hallmark of the industry.
Through the encouragement of her mentor in addition to a local entrepreneur and caterer, she began doing catering as well as building the menu for a restaurant located in her home community of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.
Pairing that with a small business management training course and a desire to prepare Indigenous foods, she pivoted roles and created that very niche she was proud to grow and share within her community. As a result, in 2015, Yawékon (meaning “it tastes good” in the Mohawk language,) was first born as a catering company.
Tawnya began working closer with her mom, to whom she attributes her great knowledge of and care for traditional foods from seed-to-stomach, so to speak. Where industry figureheads were spearheading food-to-fork initiatives, Brant was planning and planting gardens, learning seed care, harvesting, and forecasting. By her mother’s side, she spent a decade investing in herself and building networks. And then, the pandemic hit.
Within a 24-hour period in early 2020, the restaurant industry in Canada and the U.S. came to a standstill. Reflecting on that time, Brant expressed sympathy for her counterparts – many she knew for their decades of experience – who suddenly found themselves unemployed.
While her forays into a fledgling Indigenous food market were just beginning to seed, those who had long-established careers in the food industry were closing their doors, losing their homes, and wondering what was next. She took heart, however, with the fact that some became quite innovative.
Dinner plans became mail order meals. Make-at-home specials brought cuisine to light in a different capacity. Then, at the height of COVID-19 restrictions, an enduring food establishment in the Six Nations community closed its doors. With a 24-hour window of opportunity for leasing a commercial kitchen, Brant found her own career at a pivotal point.
Signing a lease she had waited 8 years to come to fruition, Yawékon then opened its doors as an eatery in the Iroquois Village Plaza in the heart of Ohsweken.
“A restaurant was never part of the plan,“ she explained. “I knew there would be interest, but it was such a small spot. I needed to do daily menus because the foods I wanted to work with were so hard to come by. Daily specials meant that I needed to be there,“ Brant said, adding, “and I have a career outside of that.”
Chef Tawnya’s Continued Journey
With the first season of Chef Brant’s series One Dish One Spoon (airing on APTN) being filmed in May of that year, a restaurant business underway, and catering opportunities from coast to coast on the horizon, she made another bold move.
“I was sick of saying no to so many opportunities,” she noted, saying that she accepted the chance to then participate in the Food Network series, Top Chef Canada. Having signed a contract to keep filming under wraps, she placed her own show on hold for the prospect of saying yes to new doors that were opening.
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After the filming and release of the wildly popular Top Chef Canada, she then chose to pursue opportunities within her own series. Determined to make the direction of season two of One Dish One Spoon focus on her own entrepreneurial journey, she also recognized life changes happening with her mom.
“I chose to close the restaurant and keep the option to cater because my goal is to move forward with keeping what she has taught me and so many others alive. She worked hard for us to have what we have now and knowing that won’t stop gives my work more direction, more meaning.”
So, what does the future hold for Chef Brant? The garden that her mom taught her to cultivate and nurture will become part of Yawékon. She sees long-table dinners there and culinary workshops.
She sees continued growth in cooking with intention, and no longer saying no to the kinds of opportunities that make her happy. Caring for and teaching her community and other Indigenous communities like Six Nations about food sovereignty. Using her own series as a vehicle for education.
She doesn’t yet foresee the full direction of her show or where her culinary career will take her, but she continues to hold true to her journey. “We’re given gifts and meant to use them. To see our Haudenosaunee people doing better is something I want … To learn what our traditional foods are, what they do for our bodies, and share why we love them.
“With respect to culinary tourism, that’s the experience. Show the people why they should care. Teach them that.” In doing so, Chef Brant maintains her freedom to do what she wants to do, with an entrepreneurial spirit she believes more Six Nations community members share than anywhere else.
“It’s such a good thing to see others following their passions. Know that your time is valuable … If you are producing from passion, that’s important work.”
To learn more about her future culinary plans or to contact Chef Brant, visit her website at cheftawnyabrant.com/. For news, appearances, and the opportunity to enjoy her delicious, inspired cuisine at an upcoming event, follow her on socials at Yawékon By Chef Tawnya Brant on Instagram and Facebook.