From reservation to restaurant: Foods that have sustained indigenous communities since time immemorial step into the fine-dining spotlight

Published in Indian Country Today in April 2006.

Over the past few years, Native American food has stepped up to the plate. Indigenous heirloom crops and other products that were rare, or even endangered, a short time ago, including Navajo Churro lamb and Iroquois white corn, are presented with panache on the fine china of top restaurants. Increasing numbers of individual Indians can imagine careers, not merely jobs, in epicurean establishments that exalt the foods of their ancestors.

The transformation of this ancient family and community cookery had been bubbling on the back burner for about a decade, with the opening of high-style restaurants serving Native food, including Potawatomi chef Loretta Barrett Oden’s Corn Dance Café, at Picuris Pueblo’s hotel in Santa Fe, and architect-designed Liliget Feast House, owned by chef Dolly Watts, Gitksan First Nation, in Vancouver.

The Gila River Indian Community, south of Phoenix, turned up the heat in 2002, when they opened Kai Restaurant, shown below, Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and installed Sandy Garcia, at right, from San Juan and Santa Clara Pueblos, as chef de cuisine. Janos Wilder, of Janos Restaurant in Tucson, signed on as consulting chef.

Garcia was fresh from wowing diners at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and Wilder had long been considered one of the country’s top chefs. The duo’s sophisticated food, backed by the resort’s marketing muscle, redefined Native American cooking as “cuisine,” with all the self-conscious artistry the term implies.

In another visionary move, the Gila River tribal government required Garcia to purchase as much as possible from farmers of the long-time agricultural community, thus ensuring that Kai would provide both cultural and economic benefits. This decision set the standard in community relations for restaurants that purport to offer Native American food. Kai’s local tribal suppliers currently include olive oil makers, citrus growers and schoolchildren who cultivate traditional vegetable varieties as part of their curriculum, said Garcia, who has just left the resort to open his own restaurant in Santa Clara, California.

The reputation of Native food was burnished the following year when Santa Fe food writer and photographer Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa, won a 2003 James Beard Award for her cookbook, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations. A collaboration with Navajo chef Walter Whitewater, the book offers beautifully shot, highly styled versions of traditional dishes.

A 2005 Beard Award went to another handsome Native-foods cookbook. Chef Fernando Divina and his wife, Marlene Divina, Chippewa, deliver history, reminiscences and polished recipes in Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions, written for the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. The Divinas also consulted on Mitsitam, the museum’s café, which opened the previous year.

Managed by Restaurant Associates, which runs upscale eateries nationwide, Mitsitam quickly became a destination eatery. Its 100 employees serve as many as 3,000 Native-inspired meals a day, said executive chef Richard Hetzler. Patrons range from tourists to such notables as First Lady Laura Bush and August Schellenberg, Mohawk, who starred as Powhatan in the movie The New World.

Though far from Indian country, Hetzler seeks out indigenous sources. “In the end, it isn’t that many individual ingredients,” he said. “We get Iroquois white corn from Cattaraugus, salmon from Quinault Pride Seafood and buffalo from the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, among others; but most Native products are high-end, so it adds up to about a third of the budget. And I’m always looking for additional authentic items.”

Other mainstream chefs have contributed to the transformation. Like Janos Wilder, Anton Brunbauer of Westin Kierland Resort, in Scottsdale, Arizona, doesn’t just use heirloom Native ingredients, he also works to preserve them through Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson seedbank founded by ethnobotanist and author Gary Nabhan, among others. Brunbauer has famously declared that for health seekers the rediscovery of wholesome, flavorful indigenous ingredients means “we don’t have to eat tofu for the rest of our lives.”

At the Forest County Potawatomi’s Dream Dance in Milwaukee, the restaurant’s chefs — first Brandon Wolff and now Jason Gorman — have garnered raves and awards, including a recent one for most romantic restaurant in the nation. Dishes created by John Sharpe, chef-owner of The Turquoise Room at La Posada Hotel, in Winslow, Arizona, are paeans to area communities’ products: Navajo Churro lamb, Hopi piki bread, and Tohono O’odham tepary beans, for example.

The involvement of mainstream restaurants in Native food has, so far, been characterized by respect and responsibility. But as the idea of Native-inspired restaurant cuisine grows, are there dangers? Might Native people be left behind as the powerful currents of mainstream culture sweep up their foods and food ideas, then rush on to the next big thing?

“It’s already happened once,” said Nephi Craig, a White Mountain Apache/Navajo chef who worked for Mary Elaine’s at the Phoenician Resort, in Scottsdale. Craig now does lectures and demonstrations on Native food at museums, colleges and cooking schools, as well as at Native American high schools and diabetes centers.

“Boston Baked Beans? Clambakes? When Europeans arrived here, they would not have survived — and later, built a world power— if we had not taught them to hunt, cultivate, gather and prepare our foods. Almost all American regional cuisines are built on Native traditions,” Craig said, who is the founder of the Native American Culinary Association. “And, yes, there are still dangers. Corporations or restaurant chains might say, ‘it’s exotic, it’s healthy, there’s money to be made here,’ and co-opt what we do. However, with so many Native American professionals involved in our food today — via agriculture, public health, medicine and the restaurant industry — we are in a better position to prevent this.”

            The world has picked up its knife and fork and is taking a new look at Native foods. The first proliferation of foods of this hemisphere, as European explorers distributed them to every corner of the globe, revolutionized cuisine and energized economies worldwide, with tragic results for the inhabitants of this hemisphere. How this course in the great planetary dinner party plays out is yet to be seen.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Kai and Mitsitam restaurants.

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