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Culinary Veteran Returns Home to Work as Executive Chef for Cherokee Nation Entertainment

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After nearly two decades of experience in the culinary world, Cherokee citizen Don McClellan is bringing his talents back to the reservation as an executive chef for Cherokee Nation Entertainment (CNE).

The Nowata, Oklahoma-born McClellan has brought his expertise as a chef to restaurants and hotels in Washington D.C., New York, California, Louisiana and Arizona. He is known for his simple, flavorful, southwestern-influenced fare.

This past July 24, McClellan's culinary talents were on display in an Iron Chef-style cook-off at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., as part of the museum's celebration of the 2011 Living Earth Festival.

McClellan squared off against the Smithsonian's own Chef Richard Hetzler, the executive chef for the museum’s Mitsitam Café, on Hetzler's home turf.

The pair—each backed by a couple assistants provided by the local organization D.C. Central Kitchen—were challenged to prepare two appetizers, three entrees and two desserts using the Three Sisters ingredients (corn, beans and squash), reported the Smithsonian Magazine. Other optional ingredients at the chefs' disposal included salmon, duck and buffalo.

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While McClellan was named the crowd favorite, according to the Cherokee Phoenix, he narrowly lost the competition—determined by a group of local chefs—by a 629-628 vote.

McClellan, who most recently served as the executive chef at Atria Vista del Rio in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began his career as a chef on a cruise ship. Now he looks forward to returning to his home soil.

“There is so much opportunity to go out into the world and gain knowledge and experience, then come back and use it to benefit the tribe,” McClellan said in the press release. “My roots are in Oklahoma, and I’ve been thinking of coming back for a long time. I’m eager to use my experiences outside of Oklahoma to allow me to give even more back to my tribe.”

As an executive chef, McClellan will be responsible for designing and coordinating menus for CNE’s restaurants and banquet facilities; developing recipes; and overseeing all aspects of food preparation and delivery. CNE, the gaming and entertainment arm of the Cherokee Nation, owns and operates Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, seven Cherokee Casinos, Cherokee Casino Will Rogers Downs, three hotels, two golf courses and many other retail operations in northeast Oklahoma.

“When we diversify and grow, we’re able to provide a variety of quality jobs for Cherokee citizens within the Cherokee Nation,” said David Stewart, chief executive officer for CNE, in the press release. “We’re always happy to bring citizens like Chef McClellen home. His knowledge, experience and culinary skills will be tremendous assets to CNE.”

McClellan is a graduate of Northern Arizona University and The Culinary Institute of America.