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Savoring the future: upscale restaurant supports Gila River farming revival

SACATON, Ariz. - Raves are coming in from food critics, who use words like "sophisticated" and "masterful" to describe Kai restaurant, which opened in October 2002 on the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, south of Phoenix. The posh new facility, owned by the Gila River Indian Community and managed by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, is in a stretch of the Sonoran Desert where wild horses - descendants of once-vast herds - still roam.

Kai's cuisine is contemporary, but, in keeping with the wishes of the community, the ingredients include traditional Native crops and other reservation-grown foodstuffs. So, the eatery's chefs, including consultant Janos Wilder, who won a James Beard Foundation award in 2000 for best Southwestern chef, and chef de cuisine Sandy Garcia, of San Juan and Santa Clara Pueblos, are turning to tribal farmers for the products they need.

Wilder, who is on the board of directors of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tuscon seed bank for indigenous heirloom crops, is a longtime admirer of flavors and textures of these foods, which he calls a "treasure."

"Our restaurant is on the grounds of the Gila River Indian Community, so we want to build a bridge, to work with local Native farmers, who will supply us. We, in turn, will help keep them in business," said Garcia.

Chefs and farmers collaborate from start to finish. Garcia has to know which crops thrive in the area and when they are harvested. "I'm designing a salad mix that can be produced locally and delivered to us regularly," he said.

Mother Nature is another member of the team. "Crops are subject to the weather," said Garcia, "so we're flexible in the kitchen, switching gears if something isn't available."

The 19,000 Akimel O'otham (or Pima) and Pee Posh (or Maricopa) community members have a long agricultural history. The Huhukam, who were forerunners of today's tribal members, built many miles of canals, which allowed them to grow corn, bean, squash, and melons (as well as nonfood crops such as cotton) along the Gila, Salt, and Colorado rivers. Gathered foods, game, and fish swimming in the canals supplemented these items.

During the 19th century, the increasing non-Indian population, including settlers and the military, relied on food produced by Akimel O'otham and Pee Posh farmers in what was then called the breadbasket of Arizona.

By the early 20th century, upstream diversion of water by non-Indians, combined with years of drought, caused rivers to dry up. The once-lush riparian woodlands and grassy plains disappeared. Agriculture and the bountiful life the Akimel O'otham and Pee Posh had known came to a halt. Poverty and starvation ensued.

Now, a water settlement is about to return this precious resource to the community via the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project (PMIP), the first such venture run by a Native nation. The tribe is building infrastructure, such as canals, and offering farmers technical assistance. There is also a heightened awareness on the 600-square-mile reservation of the importance of teaching agriculture and supporting local producers.

"Farming is coming back around here," said Robert Stone, general manager of Gila River Farms, a 16,000-acre tribally owned operation that produces cotton, alfalfa, and a variety of food crops. "Gila Rivers Farms has used its construction crews and equipment to prepare about 500 acres for small farmers."

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In the fall of 2002, Stone and other tribal farmers attended a planning meeting with Wilder and Garcia. "After the meeting, I dropped off samples of the 10 or so citrus varieties we grow," recalled Stone. Chef Garcia got to work, producing recipes like a four-fruit sorbet, which features the juices of mineolas, tangelos, tangerines, and Valencia oranges in a vodka base.

Another Gila River Farms product used at Kai (Pima for "seed") is an olive oil that's subtler than most European ones. "Because we harvest our olives before they are fully ripe, our oil is delicate, with a light-gold color and a touch of bitterness," explained Stone.

From time to time, Stone eats at Kai. The dishes he has ordered may have included shrimp from Pisces Aquaculture, a fish farm on tribal land, or vegetables from the garden of Gila Crossing Community School, a pre-K - 8 school in Laveen, Ariz.

Bob Sotomayor helped the school get its agriculture program underway. "Part of his job at PMIP is setting up gardens at reservation schools," said agriculture teacher Tim Moore. "He was an immense help." Seeds came from Native Seeds/SEARCH and other enterprises.

The school plot now provides Kai with herbs and squash blossoms, as well as a mix of greens that Garcia braises and pairs with venison.

In May, the fourth graders created a Three Sisters Banquet at their school, using traditional recipes from home and heritage crops, including I'itoi onions and squashes like Magdalena Cushaw and Tohono O'odham Ha:l. Guests included the community's governor, Richard Narcia, elders, school officials, and Garcia, who pitched in and helped serve the corn soup, saut?ed saguaro cactus buds, tepary-bean enchiladas, salsas, and other dishes.

By sixth grade, the curriculum emphasizes the business of agriculture, with the children participating in plant sales and other ventures. All told, the garden earns about $2,000 a year, which is spent on activities like the eighth-grade class trip.

"In the old days, gardening taught people how to behave, so it is important culturally," said Moore. "We also send food home with the kids to improve their diets." Pima reservations have among the highest rates of diabetes in the world, and eating fresh produce, particularly slowly digested traditional crops, combats that.

Moore reported that the little kids invariably love digging in the dirt. Even ultra-cool teens can't resist the garden's allure. They've been known to plead, "Please, can we harvest carrots today, please, please?"

The farming revival continues to grow, as Garcia works to add farmers to his list of suppliers and to expand the repertoire of existing ones. "Next year, we'll try Sandy's new salad mix," said Moore.

In this imaginative marriage of old and new - farmers and a cosmopolitan restaurant - all partners can flourish.