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

“New Native American Cuisine goes beyond tradition—it’s ancestral heritage.” -Chef Lois Ellen Frank

When Loretta Barrett Oden (Potawatomi) opened Corn Dance Café in the early 1990s, in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, the concept of applying classic, world-class culinary principles to the preparation and presentation of indigenous Native foods was virtually unprecedented. Up until then, corn, beans, squash, fry-bread, and its subsequent evolutionary concoction, the Indian Taco, the occasional bowl of mutton stew and and, in the Southwest, by default of Spanish colonization, the hardy and ever-so-versatile green chilie pepper in its penultimate state of finely ground crimson powder, constituted the palette of foods that the non-Native world most readily associated with Indian culture, with a few but far between appearances on high-end menus here and there of more authentic pre-contact native fare such as wild spinach, watercress, parsnips, pine nuts, rabbit, salmon, elk or venison, bison and quail. 

RELATED: A Renaissance of Native Culinary Philosophy

Oden’s highly innovative ideas, exceptionally applied cooking methods and elegant presentation and plating aesthetics breathed new life into the Native food scene of the day and, accordingly, she is credited with engaging a new set of inclinations at the not-always-round culinary table. From these new leanings in Native cookery arose a greater understanding and appreciation of true Native food culture, which in turn increased the availability of indigenous-based foods and thusly extended the reach of Native cuisine far beyond the larders of yesteryear. For the first time in the history of up-scale, main-stream American restaurant cooking there was a Native-based component added to the equation, and therein was planted the seed for the future of haute cuisine, Native-style.

Today, Native cooking has moved far beyond the handful of ingredients that not so long ago confined it to all but a few either very traditional (home) or very ahead-of-the-times (restaurant) dining rooms. In fact, it has become something of its own genre in recent years as many of Native America’s most celebrated foods have found themselves the subject of much attention atop many a well-set, lined-draped table. From Santa Fe to Scottsdale, Lincoln City to Seattle, Vancouver to Vermont and back down to Green Bay, Native cuisine is haute, indeed.

And, save room for new ideas: The Three Sisters and their usual companions have become acquainted with many new and exciting relatives, and the party’s just getting started.

Here, a few bites of the know: a glance at how (and where) Native America’s top chefs are redefining the standards of the classic American menu, putting real Native foods back on America’s table, and stirring up new traditions in Native food culture.

Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa)
Red Mesa Cuisine, Santa Fe, New Mexico

James Beard Award recipient, chef Lois Ellen Frank, invents dishes that are not only splendidly pleasing to the optic and palatable senses, but that at once remind us of our ancient connections to the true Native American bounty that has sustained our ancestry and supported the continued evolution of Native indigenous cultural heritage for a very long time.

Courtesy Frank

Lois Ellen Frank

As a leader in the movement to revitalize traditional Native foods and foodways, chef Frank is also at the forefront of the emerging trends in Native cooking, namely the New Native American Cuisine, and has been highly influential in promoting Native food consciousness, in part by helping to dismantle the superficial and sometimes erroneous associations that have made their way into the narrative of Native culinary history.

With chef Frank in the field, the rituals of getting back to basics have never been so scrumptious.

Must-taste: Zuni Sunflower Cakes

Ron Dimas (White Mountain Apache)
Orange Sky/Maricopa Talking Stick Resort Casino, Scottsdale, Arizona

Much celebrated chef Ron Dimas’ Best in Show win at the Arizona Indian Gaming Association’s Chef’s Challenge last November has certainly brought the conversation around this food genius to a rolling boil.

Courtesy Dimas

Ron Dimas

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With menus that have been more-than-enthusiastically received by gastronomes the food-world over, Dimas has achieved notability for his innovative takes on classic Native staples paired with locally-sourced ingredients and presented with refined yet unpretentious elegance.

Truly, the proverbial best of both worlds hereto applies.

Must-Taste: Venison Loin 

RELATED: Top Chef, Native Style: Ron Dimas’ Venison Loin Wins Best in Show

Bertina Cadman (Diné)
Native American Culinary Program, Classic Cooking Academy
Waterbird Catering, Scottsdale, Arizona

For chef Bertina Cadman, tradition is the name of the game when the menu calls for meat, with deer, elk, and lamb featured in a variety of familiar presentations: baked, broiled or roasted, or as the main ingredient in autumn- or winter-perfect stews.

Also of great delight to Cadman’s fans is her penchant for interpretation when approaching daintier culinary constituents. Using the blue-prints for classic European pastry-making techniques, chef Cadman again turns to a more traditional selection of ingredients in bringing the Phyllo form to fruition, such as replacing the usual requisite pastry custard with a bright and lively prickly-pear coulis, or indulging a recipe that usually asks for almonds in a comparable measurement of pine nuts.

In Cadman’s kitchen, everything old is new again, and the finely honed skills of a veritable Reconstructionist are well-served, and very sweet.

Must-Taste: French Pear Tart

Nephi Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo)
Sunrise Park Resort Hotel, Greer, Arizona

As former reigning champion of the Chef’s Challenge and founder of the Native American Culinary Association, chef Nephi Craig has stood amongst the most valuable players in virtually all of North America’s culinary games for more than a decade.

Courtesy Craig

Nephi Craig

Creating dishes that are often based largely on his strong social and political leanings toward a more committed return to Native foodways in Native America, chef Craig’s cooking philosophies challenge the outdated axioms that for decades endorsed the entire system of a forced (Colonial) diet in much of Native America.

Chef Craig seems to have an inherent understanding of the healing power of food: We should all feel better already.

Must-Taste: Western Apache Acorn Stew

Next time, in Part III and IV of Native Foodways: New Seasons: More top chefs; recipes; and a Q&A look into what defines a traditional food. (Top chefs representing all major geographical regions will be noted in the series: Southwest, Pacific Northwest Coast/Canada/First World Nations, Great Plains, and Eastern Seaboard.) 

Until then, chow…and may you remain sated.