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Four Native Culinary Geniuses: Meet the Masters, Part 3

Here's our third installation of indigenous top-chef profiles—check out Indian country’s most illustrious master-chefs and their food.

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

RELATED: Four Native Culinary Geniuses: Meet the Masters, Part 2

Germania Maria Diaz (Dominican Republic)

With more than 20 years of experience in the business of composing exquisite culinary symphonies, chef Diaz has hit more than a few high notes over the course of her resounding career. As one of only a handful of female chefs in Puerto Rico’s hotel-restaurant industry to hold an Executive Chef position, and only the second to achieve that distinction at Conrad Condado Plaza, chef Diaz (formerly of El Conquistador in Fajardo) has certainly laid out new melodies to inspire other young gourmet songstresses.

A graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Escuela Hotelera in Isla Verde, Carolina, chef Diaz describes her cooking style as “contemporary,” but also emphasizes the fact that today’s Puerto Rican cuisine is based in the legacy of the various cultures that have come together on the island since the time of the Taino Indians. Sometimes referred to as cocina criolla, or creole cooking, it contains elements of African, Cuban, Mexican, Spanish, and American influences, yet embodies its own distinct character and spectrum of flavors. As have generations of great Puerto Rican cooks before her, chef Diaz relies heavily on ingredients of native origin, such as apio (celery root), papaya, cacao, coriander, nispero (loquat), plantains, and yampee (yam), to flavor her dishes and indulge each of the palate’s five known elements of taste.

Germania Maria Diaz, Dominican Republic, is the executive chef at the Conrad Condado Plaza in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Creativity is also an essential ingredient in her recipes, as evidenced in her offerings of such delectables as arroz con dulce, a sweet and smooth sugared rice dish; the Puerto Rican pastel, made with root vegetables indigenous to the island; and her innovative interpretation of the traditional Italian, rice-based recipe, arancini, to which she adds two island staples, those being crab and the ever-versatile coconut: again, just three pitch-perfect examples of her seemingly instinctive ability to use traditional foods and recipes in ways that keep her dishes fresh and on-key.

Must-Taste: Salmorejo (Crab Stew) and Coconut Arancini

Andrew George Jr. (British Colombia/Canadian Aboriginal/Wet’suwet’en Nation)

Offering dishes whose ultra-modern and elegant presentations often belie the unpretentious origins of their ingredients, Vancouver-based chef Andrew George Jr. has steadied his culinary inventiveness and far-reaching vision with local and seasonal foods and simple preparation techniques.

Growing up in Telkwa, British Columbia, George participated in seasonally-based traditional harvesting and hunting practices with his family, including those (gathering, line-trapping, ice-fishing) that rewarded them with various kinds of berries and nuts, salmon, trout, moose, deer, and rabbit, which they processed and prepared in accordance with age-old Wet’suwet’en custom. Also in accordance with tribal custom for the young George was attending traditional Potlatch ceremonies, to which his family contributed many of their earth- and sea-harvested treasures—and which, perhaps, with the celebrations’ plentiful myriad of colorful and delectable offerings, served as an early inspiration for the master chef-to-be.

Andrew George Jr., British Colombia/Canadian Aboriginal/Wet’suwet’en Nation, has written two books. He is seen here in 2012 when he was the lead instructor of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s culinary arts program.

George’s engagements in formal training have been many and include extensive study at Vancouver Vocational Institute (for cook training in core/short order, institutional and camp cooking, and a la carte), and apprenticeships through British Columbia Institute of Technology, which placed him in the kitchens of some of Greater Vancouver’s most noteworthy restaurants, namely Isadora’s on Granville Island, Avenue Grill in Kerrisdale, and Quillicum Restaurant, on the city’s west side. Additionally, the former World Culinary Olympics representative’s authorial endeavors have been well-lauded and thus far have produced two titles, A Feast for All Seasons: Traditional Native Peoples’ Cuisine, and Feast!: Canadian Native Cuisine for All Seasons, both page-turners for the inner gourmet in each of us.

Must-Taste: West Coast Seafood Rolls

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Freddie Bitsoie (Diné/Navajo)

Chef Bitsoie, originally from the Four Corners region near Monticello, Utah, stands among the true culinary innovators of today, Native or otherwise. Pairing authentic traditional North American indigenous foods with contemporary and innovative cooking techniques and inventive plating arrangements keeps his dishes both familiar and culturally relevant.

At the center of chef Bitsoie’s culinary philosophy is the idea of food as medicine—powerful medicine, with the ability to prevent and correct existing conditions of the body, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. But fret not—this is no bitter, hard to swallow stuff. This is scrumptious remedy to what ails and ills us.

RELATED: Aromatic Artistry: Cooking Competitions and Restoring Ancestral Cuisine

In addition to his formal training in the culinary arts, chef Bitsoie also studied cultural anthropology and art history at the University of New Mexico. It was there that he became acquainted with the concept of ethnocentrism, which places race at the center of the respective philosophy or field of study. Combining this knowledge with a vast and varied selection of native indigenous foods, the above-mentioned selection being just a fraction of what’s out there, there is no reason that the prescription for good health be less than delicious. After all, the pursuit of good health always has been at the apex of Native culture, in as much as it promised the optimal possibility for the continuation of Indian-ness itself. For chef Bitsoie, cooking to cure is a labor of love, so eat your indigenous cattail greens…food-doc’s orders!

Must-Taste: Juniper Berry- and Sage-rubbed Navajo Lamb with Sumac Sauce

Rob Kinneen (Tlingit)

Like many of his talented colleagues, chef Kinneen has a gift for mixing things up in the kitchen, as in creative with curative, industrious with indigenous, traditional with on-trend. Concocting recipes that are at once based on long-established Native foodways and sources and continually redefined by the futuristic roles of indigenous foodways, the urban-Alaska-born-and-raised chef has earned quite a following of culinary connoisseurs and discriminating diners. With trademark presentations like elk skewers marinated in spruce tips served with fiddlehead ferns and a cranberry and birch syrup vinaigrette; sea asparagus with Alaska spot prawns and fireweed blossoms; and braised rockfish fumet with foraged vegetables, one bite is worth a thousand words.

Chef Rob Kinneen works with farmer’s market vendors.

Initially embarking on his culinary journey at the King Career Center in Anchorage, Kinneen continued his food arts studies at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and Emeril Lagasse’s much-celebrated restaurant, NOLA in New Orleans, where he became well-versed in the compositions of Cajun and Creole cooking. Later, in 2004, after several extensive engagements in some of Alaska’s most notable kitchens, he took a leap of faith and opened his own restaurant. Dedicated to using locally-sourced ingredients, Nobel’s, named in honor of Kinneen’s grandfather, opened to full houses and high praise, but, sadly, was felled several years later by the perils of low-simmering economics.

But, chins up: chef Kinneen’s mastery of all things food was not to be deterred. His food can now be experienced in a kitchen near you: yours! With Traditional Foods, Contemporary Chef, which highlight Kinneen’s statewide travels in pursuit of indigenous foods and foodways, his recipes are easily accessible and surprisingly user-friendly. Blanched Western Hemlock boughs with herring roe, anyone?

Must-Taste: Grilled Moose with Hudson Bay (Labrador) Tea Aioli

Next time: Recipes! Yes, we’re finally going to get to the recipes of the must-taste items mentioned in the series thus far; a glossary of noted food items and ingredients and a selected listing of where and how to find the items and and lots of other goodies

Food for thought: What constitutes a traditional food? How has the definition changed over time and what will it encompass in the future? Open for discussion.