Debut of Native-foods cooking course with Nephi Craig

Published in Indian Country Today in 2008. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

On the evening of March 15, 26 diners gathered at the culinary school Classic Cooking, in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a six-course Native-foods menu prepared by chefs Nephi Craig, White Mountain Apache, and Pascal Dionot, who owns the facility and had a distinguished career in top Washington, D.C., restaurants. Lecturing as they cooked in one of the school’s well-appointed demonstration kitchens, the two chefs offered their guests inventive preparations of indigenous ingredients, including wild rice, corn, salmon and bison.

            The menu was a preview for the first-ever six-month Native-foods culinary course, which will run from June 9 to November 26, 2008. “Time is ticking down, and I’m excited,” said Craig, founder of the Native American Culinary Association and program director for the course. He is shown here, plating food for serving to diners.

            Classic Cooking hopes to attract between 15 and 20 professional and recreational students to the curriculum, which costs $15,000 plus a $525 equipment and uniform fee. Prerequisites include a high school diploma or GED. Graduates will have the skills, credentials and knowledge to attain professional positions in a growing field, according to Dionot. During classes, which will encompass six hours, four days a week, students will learn technical food-preparation skills grounded in the classic French tradition as well as the history and philosophy of indigenous-food production and cookery from pre-Contact to the present.

            Craig, a classically trained chef who has prepared menus showcasing Native ingredients for Intertribal Agriculture Council trade missions in Europe and Asia, believes indigenous foods promote both individual and environmental health. “Native foods are a force for economic development and social change,” Craig said. “As we use ingredients such as salmon from the Quinault Indian Nation, additional seafood from the Pequots and the Seminoles, Cheyenne River Sioux bison, and grains and other items from the Navajos, Apaches and O’odham people, we enhance tribal economies and cultural awareness. Ten years ago, tepary beans, Navajo Churro lamb and bison were unheard of or unavailable. Now they’re on menus in restaurants across the country.”

            For the past few weeks, Craig has been talking about Classic Cooking’s groundbreaking program at education fairs and high schools on reservations around the Southwest. “We’d like to fill the class with Native students from many communities,” he said.

            “This course is a good opportunity for someone coming out of high school, or perhaps a current employee of a tribal restaurant or casino who is looking for more skills and advancement,” said Dionot. To help meet the fee, students can seek tribal, bank and corporate grants, he added. Money is also available through Sallie Mae loans and the James Beard Foundation, a major New York culinary organization. In about two years, the program will be accredited, opening the way for federal Pell Grants. Dionot is also starting a nonprofit that will raise scholarship money.

            “Interested tribal members can call me for information,” said Craig. “Each tribe has a unique situation in terms of education programs and resources, so each person’s situation is different, but I can tell potential students how others have funded this kind of study. We also have a list of affordable apartments in the area.”

            Classic Cooking’s Native-foods course will go far beyond the usual extolling of corn, beans and squash to examine many possibilities for melding classic European culinary techniques with indigenous sensibilities. For example, the Sauce Nana, shown here served with rabbit for the March 15 dinner, was Craig’s tribute to a little-known Apache hero. The concoction featured parsley, a common kitchen staple that is taken for granted, Craig said. That is, until it is “provoked,” in his words, at which point it becomes an aggressive, commanding flavor.

            To accomplish this, Craig blanched bunches of parsley in boiling water, shocked them in ice water and blended and sieved them multiple times to produce a thick, bright-green fluid. He then warmed the concentrated herb in a saucepan as he whisked in butter that had been emulsified in water, chicken stock, salt, pepper and white truffle oil. “The result is a smooth, colorful sauce that’s vibrant and aromatic,” said Craig. “It pairs well with strongly flavored ingredients, including rabbit, salmon, bison and venison.”

            Similarly, said Craig, “when provoked, Nana paired with other powerful warriors to organize some of the most radical campaigns in Apacheria. With this sauce, I hoped to honor his memory and incorporate Apache history into the course.”

            Expect more innovation from Dionot, Craig and their students. “We’re developing recipes and ideas as we go along,” said Craig. “To be a chef and involved in this is very exciting.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Nephi Craig.

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