Inez Cook is a fascinating person and a somewhat reluctant leader.
Born in Bella Coola, BC as a member of the Nuxalk Nation, at just one year of age she was a victim of the Sixties Scoop. She taken from her family without consent, put into care and adopted and raised by a White family. As she grew up and embarked on what would be a long career in the airline industry, Cook spent much of her life searching for her true identity and heritage, as detailed in her award-winning children’s book, “The Sixties Scoop.”
Cook traveled around the world, living in Saudi Arabia for a time and spending six-week stints in India, Egypt, Chad, Nigeria, Indonesia and England for her airline work. Her travel experiences always centred around food, and she’d long fantasized about someday opening a restaurant. Then, as she began the process of reconnecting with her Nuxalk heritage, she took the leap and opened Salmon n’ Bannock, Vancouver’s only Indigenous restaurant.
The truly crazy part? She only just retired from her flight career last September.
It doesn’t take long to get the sense that Cook, despite her extraordinary story and many achievements, is naturally humble and inwardly focused on her own life and business. As we connect to discuss her experiences and what it means to be a leader in the restaurant industry, Cook laughs, noting that she’s just been asked to participate in a panel for the EmpowerHER conference on women in foodservice in the U.S. “I guess I tick a lot of boxes. It’s funny because you’re an entrepreneur just plugging away and all of a sudden it’s brought to your attention that you’re considered a leader. They say that when women are asked to do something they’re not completely confident about, they’ll be honest and manage expectations. If you ask a man, they’ll just say, “No problem,” and fake it until they make it. When we’re referred to as “leaders,” I think a lot of female entrepreneurs feel like frauds. We’re just over here working, trying to keep everything together.”
During her career, Cook imagined a future when she’d open a restaurant and share some of her experiences by taking people on a journey through food. She got married and planned with her husband to open a restaurant based on his culture and food. But they divorced and the plan no longer made sense. She travelled to Kelowna, BC for the wine festival to try and forget about her divorce and encountered a huge sign that said, “Don’t panic. We’ve got Bannock”. Cook pulled over. She couldn’t believe there was an Indigenous restaurant in Kelowna, but none left in Vancouver.
Because of my airline career, the culinary world didn’t know me. Because of what happened in my childhood, the Indigenous community didn’t know me. I was an alien in both worlds.
The idea of opening her own restaurant was compelling, but Cook put it out of her mind until, a few weeks later, she met a woman who was looking to sublet her restaurant. “I felt like I was kicked in the stomach. That weekend I went back to Kelowna and met with Sharon and Darren from Kekuli Café to ask if they wanted to partner up. They weren’t ready for that at the time, but they gave me their blessing. I didn’t grow up in my culture, but I wanted to be authentic. I didn’t want to be fraud, so I hired local Indigenous people and started learning more about my culture and food. Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro opened February 15, 2010. Because of my airline career, the culinary world didn’t know me. Because of what happened in my childhood, the Indigenous community didn’t know me. I was an alien in both worlds.”
Cook characterizes her exploration of her heritage through food as very emotional. “When my ex-husband and I planned to open a restaurant based on his culture, it wouldn’t have been authentic to me, even though I learned how to cook all of the dishes,” she shares. “When I was exploring my own heritage, it didn’t feel authentic either, so I had to figure out ways to make it authentic and learn. I’m still learning every day—I’m definitely not an expert. I like celebrating Indigenous traditions with my modern viewpoint because no matter which type of restaurant I opened, because of my past, I never would have felt like I belonged.”
Cook refers back to the theme of taking people on a journey through her food, saying, “It may sound super cheesy, but I never realized that the journey I was taking people on was my personal journey; the journey within. So, when people come to Salmon n’ Bannock, you can feel it in the walls. Everyone has a story and all of our plates have a story. For example, our salmon burger is smoked with the same sage we smudge with. We have sweetgrass-infused cherries. For this year’s Dine Out Vancouver Festival, instead of a poke bowl, we’re doing a “smoké bowl”, a vegetarian dish with smoked mushrooms and crispy Haida Gwaii kelp and seasoned barley. That’s what we’re all about. I hate the word “fusion”. To me, that means bringing two totally different things together. We’re not fusion. We’re the only Indigenous restaurant in the city. We have ovens and a sous vide, so we’re modern.”
One of Cook’s friends oversees Indigenous initiatives at the Vancouver airport and had been suggesting she open a location there. It wasn’t until the pandemic when shutdowns forced a pivot to takeout and delivery, that Cook and her team made a simplified menu for Uber Eats, and that opening a streamlined version of the restaurant started to make sense. Inspired by the new menu, she called her friend at the airport back and the plans for Salmon n’ Bannock On The Fly took flight. “I visited YVR to look at locations while I was laid off during the travel slowdowns, not knowing how long it would last. I signed a lease and a month later was called back to work full-time at Air Canada. I’d hit my service goal, so I decided to retire and Salmon n’ Bannock On the Fly soft launched at YVR in December, with a grand opening on February 13th. After so long in the industry, I’ve become a bit of a brat about travel. I wasn’t leaving without my free flight passes.”
As Cook reflects on her experiences and purpose so far, what comes through is a sense of gratitude and a growing awareness and comfort with her responsibility to others. “I think my job now is to continue to inspire other Indigenous people to know that big things are possible. During the pandemic I posted a meme about the impact of lockdowns on restaurants. I thought it was funny, but I got in a fair bit of trouble. People felt that, as a leader, I should have been more optimistic and that I shouldn’t have posted it. Understanding what it means to be a leader in other people’s eyes is a big responsibility. It still surprises me, but I’m already there.”
To see what’s on the menu visit: www.salmonandbannock.net