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Four Native Culinary Geniuses: Meet the Masters, Part 2

Welcome to the second installation of Native top-chef profiles. Here, our notes on Indian country’s most illustrious master-chefs continue: each a star in his own right, and together, a constellation of culinary artistic genius.

RELATED: Meet the Masters: A Taste of Who’s Haute in Native Cuisine, Part 1

Walter Whitewater (Dine’/Navajo)
Red Mesa Cuisine, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Walter Whitewater garnishes a dish at Red Mesa Cuisine.

In the hands of self-taught chef Walter Whitewater, ordinary ingredients are transformed into extraordinary culinary creations that delight the senses from plate to palate. Having spent his early years in Piñon, Arizona, Whitewater is well-acquainted with the many delectable bounties available throughout Navajoland, and frequently includes them in his recipes, such as the often-requested Cactus Pad, Red Bell Pepper & Orange Segment Salad with Fiery Jalapeno Dressing; and the Bison Meat Indian Tacos—both of which have earned him many a devoted fan.

An outspoken advocate for healthy eating, chef Whitewater encourages us to return to more traditional foods and foodways—an ancestral diet, if you will—based more on unprocessed, organic and seasonally and locally grown plants and lean meats, such as venison and bison, and less on high-calorie, high-fat, quick-grab, uber-sized fare. As culinary advisor for the James Beard Award-winning book Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations and business partner of fellow-chef and Native food entrepreneur, Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa), chef Whitewater is quite deservedly considered to be among the most knowledgeable and creative of Native America’s premier chefs, offering recipes that are at once healthy and eco-conscious and deeply rooted in tribal principles.

With Whitewater at the helm, there’s no excuse for missing the boat on this master chef’s culinary journey into a tastier and healthier future, where deliciousness is always on the horizon.

Must-Taste: Spicy Corn Soup with Roasted Red Pepper and Chipotle Puree

Michelle Karr-Ueoka (Hawaiian)
Alan Wong’s, Honolulu, Hawaii

Pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka

Chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka has been in the business of creating elegant and savory dishes for quite some time, having begun her career more than a decade ago fulfilling stages in some of the country’s most highly-praised kitchens, including those of Alan Wong’s, Union Pacific, The French Laundry, and Thomas Keller’s New York gem Per Se.

Although those initial pursuits were passion-filled and well-received among discerning culinary circles, they eventually led the well-traveled Ms. Karr-Ueoka to her true calling: pastry. Upon completing her curriculum of externships, she rejoined Alan Wong’s—this time as pastry chef, where she relies on local harvests including fruits and nuts, and organic, locally produced dairy to create an impressive array of colorful, exotic treats.

Regarded as one of the islands’ pre-eminent pastry chefs, Karr-Ueoka’s reverence for the natural beauty and bounty of her native Hawaii is evident not only in the tangible effects of her elegant and expressive pastries and desserts, but also in the conscientious (i.e. local and seasonally based) sourcing of ingredients that she employs in bringing her gifts to the table, which invariably appeal both to an aesthetic and an appetite.

Must-Taste: Pineapple Shaved Ice

Jack Strong (Siletz)
Chinook Winds Casino Resort, Lincoln City, Oregon

As Executive Chef at one of Oregon’s most luxurious casinos and a regular-contender-turned-champion on the Native chef competition/cook-off circuit, it seems fair to assume that chef Jack Strong knows something about heat and pressure. And with more than 20 years of highly accomplished experience in the ultra-competitive field of culinary arts, he must also know something about keeping it calm and cool.

Thankfully, one zone that’s heat- and pressure-free is where the selection of ingredients is concerned: Indigenous, regionally available foods with cultural integrity are always the standard…the Strong-point, if you will. Traditional Native cooking techniques are incorporated into many of chef Strong’s culinary practices; and Native foods, such as wild-caught salmon and bison, are sourced from Native communities whenever possible—also a heat-free decision. 

Jack Strong hails from Oregon's Confederated Tribes of Siletz and stays connected to his Native roots while inventing creative Southwestern fare at Kai, fine-dining establishment at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, part of the Gila River Indian Community.

Having been raised by his grandparents, Strong watched his grandmother as she prepared everything she made from scratch; carefully rolling out dough and cutting it into strips to make noodles for a waiting stew. Today, that influence is apparent in Strong’s insistence on freshness, and in his most-meticulous attention to detail, an uncompromising standard that was also honed through extensive travel and study overseas, a sous-chef position at The Phoenician’s on the Green in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his co-authorship of The New Native American Cuisine: Five Star Recipes from the Chefs of Arizona’s Kai Restaurant.

Must-Taste: Native Alder Plank Salmon & Shrimp with Three Sisters’ Ragout

Note: Strong is the first Siletz Tribal Member to hold the title of Executive Chef at Chinook Winds.

Rich Francis (Tetlit Gwich’in/Haudenosaunee/Tuscarora Nations)
Aboriginal Culinary Concepts, Ontario, Canada

'I try to keep things as pre-contact as possible,' says Francis.

Creativity and inventiveness have long been important elements of Native culture, often defining our very endeavors of survival. Today, these twin-concepts remain steadfast, and are helping to define the culinary philosophies of Stratford Chef School graduate and acclaimed Canada-based chef Rich Francis, whose menus reflect the importance of preparing traditional foods in ways that are suited for the times.

Guided by the principles and practices he learned while engaged in formal study and while under the guidance of such notable chefs as David Lee and Jason Parsons, as well as by the tribal values of his indigenous aboriginal ancestry, chef Francis presents us with feasts that fetch far beyond mere sustenance to evoke a sense of emotion, community, belonging and contribution.

With every new idea and innovative recipe, with each new twist on tradition, Chef Francis is moving aboriginal cuisine in new directions. How lucky we are to be along for the ride as this Top Chef Canada hits top speed, indeed. 

RELATED: Native Chef Rich Francis Makes Final of 'Top Chef Canada'

Must-Taste: Rosehip Crusted Duck Breast & Sweetgrass

Next up, more chef profiles, recipes, etc. Until then, Chow! And may you remain sated.