Banff Jasper Collection

At Cooks with Stones, everyone brings something spectacular to the table.

Since 2021, Pursuit has been a proud and enthusiastic partner in the Further Education Society of Alberta (FESA)’s Cooks with Stones program. The holistic culinary opportunity brings together youth and young adults, ages 16 to 30, from the Stoney Nakoda Nations (Iyarhe Nakoda) to learn kitchen skills, gather real world experience and — potentially — discover a calling.

Throughout the 12-week program, connection to culture always shines through, as new skills build on Indigenous traditions, knowledge and empowerment.

“We want to inspire participants to see they can go out and then come back and still be Indigenous,” says Wyanne Smallboy-Wesley, who created Cooks with Stones in collaboration with FESA and acts as a consultant through her own business, Loon Company. “No matter where they work, they can still be proud to be who they are.”

In the kitchen and beyond

Cooks with Stones’ three months are split into three sections. After being introduced to the program and getting a grasp of the basics, participants are brought into Pursuit’s Banff kitchens for work terms alongside the food and beverage teams. Brazen, Farm & Fire and the Banff Gondola’s two outlets — Sky Bistro and Northern Lights Alpine Kitchen — all open their doors to a rotation of participants.

“The program is not only for them to learn how to work in the kitchen and to work in a team — it's also to see if it's something they want to do.” — Scott Hergott, Pursuit’s executive chef of Banff properties.

Participants cut, peel and prep for customers in each restaurant, while also learning food safety essentials. Each cook is paid for their time in the kitchen, and leaders work with participants to apply for bank accounts, register for social insurance numbers and assemble resumes as needed.

Once participants’ in-kitchen rotations have wrapped up, focus shifts to the program’s second section — Elder-led lessons and Indigenous approaches to cooking. From herb and medicine gathering to open-fire cooking with Indigenous chef Shane Chartrand, the program aims to connect participants with their own culture.

Cooks prepare food outdoors.

“Really what it's all about is just taking the Indigenous touchstones of information and sharing it with the youth so they can take over my position,” says Chartrand, who leads Banff Hospitality Collective’s Indigenous programming.

On a sunny August afternoon during the second half of the program, Chartrand is heading a workshop in Calgary’s Confederation Park. Participants are preparing a wide range of dishes — spicy summer salads, Spanish-inspired paella and bison heart, to name a few — over open flames.

“At the end of the day, we're all going to sit together as a family, as new friends, and eat the food that we've created,” says Chartrand. “It's pretty important and it's pretty incredible.”

A person pours oil into a cast iron pan with apples in it.

Growth meets tradition

Over its first three years, Cooks with Stones' profound impact has been recognized on an ever-growing scale.

In 2022, FESA was the recipient of the Canada Life Literacy Innovation Award for the Cooks with Stones program. Accolades continued into 2023, as participants received an invitation from Canada’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ralph Goodale, to showcase the program at the Canada Day celebration in London.

Cooks with Stones is continuing to evolve and grow year-over-year. An additional section, added in 2023, has seen select participants continue into an interview process. Chef Hergott hopes the program will lead to around three permanent hires per year, allowing young cooks to further explore a career within Pursuit kitchens.

Young cooks prepare a meal outdoors in a park with an open fire stove.

From the program’s first introductory classes to dinner services in world-class kitchens and everywhere in-between, Smallboy-Wesley says her goal with Cooks with Stones always includes empowering Indigenous youth to embrace who they are.

More than a century beyond Pursuit forefathers Jim and Bill Brewster’s earliest partnerships with Stoney guide William Twin, Smallboy-Wesley says she feels the modern parallel in how Cooks with Stones carries a Canadian Rockies tradition forward.

“It's very fitting for us to continue a historic relationship with Pursuit, to say that we’re friends in work and life in the mountains,” says Smallboy-Wesley. “Part of how we’re continuing that is through Cooks with Stones.”

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