The world on their plate: Native youth prepare for culinary careers

Published in Indian Country Today in 2007. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

“Orson Patterson and kids like him are the future,” said chef, cookbook author and photographer Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa. Patterson, Navajo, shown left with Frank, assisted her during her indigenous-foods demonstration at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, a prestigious fall showcase for fine food and wine in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Patterson is one of several Native students who recently earned a professional chef’s certification from Santa Fe Community College (SFCC). He’s also working toward an associate of arts degree from the school and, with the recommendation of the culinary arts program’s lead instructor, Michelle Roetzer, has just earned a spot as a banquet chef at Pointe South Mountain Resort, a Phoenix-area luxury vacation spot.

Boyd Howeya, Acoma Pueblo, and Franklin George, Navajo, also earned their credentials while working in SFCC’s well-appointed kitchens with Roetzer. She placed Howeya with an adventure-travel outfitter in Alaska, and George at a high-end restaurant in Sandia Pueblo’s casino.

“The food industry provides viable careers,” said Frank, who is a proprietor, along with chef Walter Whitewater, Navajo, of Red Mesa Cuisine, an indigenous-foods catering company. Frank also noted the recent drop in diabetes cases on the Tohono O’odham Reservation following the re-introduction of the community’s heritage foods. “Working with our Native foods is integrally tied to identity and to health,” she said. “How can we be as healthy as possible?”

With diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and other illnesses rising on reservations, cooking classes provided needed health information, says Roetzer. “The students learn to cook healthy, affordable meals for their families, and they develop a great skill set that can lead to a career,” she said.

Recent SFCC graduates have begun mentoring other young Native chefs-in-training. One 19-year-old Navajo enrolled at the college credited Franklin George with encouraging him. “I didn’t expect I could learn to cook so well,” the young man marveled. “So far, my favorite cuisines are Chinese and Mexican, but I’ve also learned Russian, Spanish, Brazilian and a lot more.”

The trick to good cooking? “Common sense, of course,” he responded. “But you’ve also got to be able to cook by feel and to eyeball the amounts of ingredients you need without measuring. Then you have to be creative when you arrange the food on the plate, because people eat with their eyes first. They see the food, then they taste it.”

The day Indian Country Today visited the college, he and a dozen other students were learning to make Tunisian dishes, including Debla, a dessert pasta that is cut into inch-wide ribbons, rolled up, deep-fried and drizzled with a lemon-honey. Standing at one of the kitchen’s long butcher-block-topped tables, he cracked eggs into the flour, added oil and water (without measuring, naturally) and began to knead the golden dough.

           Roetzer, former executive chef at the elegant Café Central in El Paso, shown far left, called the Native students’ work life-changing — for them and for her. “I may have helped,” she said, “but they were the ones who showed up every day, worked hard and were positive no matter what. They touched my heart.”

Roetzer, a high-energy woman who helped raise three stepdaughters, is thrilled and, she confesses, a bit sad when each of her students graduates. “It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” she said. She’s as proud as any parent of their accomplishments but knows she’ll miss them as they make their way in the world. On the other hand, the walls of her office behind the kitchen were decorated with photos of students and post cards from their travels, so perhaps they won’t forget where they first learned to cook after all.

Indian Country Today spoke to Orson Patterson about his training and his plans.

Indian Country Today: Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to become a chef?
Orson Patterson: It was when I tasted Michelle’s Chicken Cordon Bleu. You wrap a boneless, skinless chicken breast around prosciutto and cheese, sear it in a pan for a nice brown color then finish it in the oven. I still like to make it for myself.

ICT: Learning to be a culinary professional is tough work. What kept you going?
OP: We learned so many cuisines, and Michelle taught us about the cultures as well as the recipes, so my eyes were opened to the world through food.

ICT: You’re pretty busy these days.
OP: Yes, I just got back from Phoenix, where I went through orientation at Pointe South. Today I had Lois’s event here in Santa Fe, and the day after tomorrow, I’ll be back in Arizona to start my job.

ICT: What will you be doing?
OP: As a banquet chef, I’ll do on-premises catering for big events like weddings and conventions.

ICT: Where do you see yourself in a few years?
OP: I’d like to be a sous chef. For that to happen, I’ll need to keep gaining experience. Eventually, I want to work up to being an executive chef.

ICT: As your career progresses, do you see yourself helping develop other Native chefs?
OP: Someday, I’d like to go back to Crownpoint [New Mexico], where I graduated from high school in 2006, and start an after-school culinary program for youth on the reservation. It would be a way to build self-esteem and pride. Native foods would be part of that. I’d teach students to appreciate our traditions instead of hip-hop and all the other things they get involved with instead. It’s important for us to know our origins and to go back to the old foods.

For more information on learning to be a chef at Santa Fe Community College, go to and search for “Culinary Arts Program” or call (505) 428-1435.

Text and photos c. Stephanie Woodard.

Popular Posts

Dancing from the Heart: A Rehearsal at Zuni Pueblo

Create a Medicine-Wheel Garden

That’s entertainment!—Ohio Native leader decries show-biz powwows, new Ohio “tribes”