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Amelia Schafer
Special to ICT

Indigenous Chef Jessica Pamonicutt is lighting a fire in Chicago’s culinary arts scene.

A citizen of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, she is serving not only delicious Indigenous food, but she’s also educating the public and breaking down barriers with her pop-up and catering business, Ketapanen Kitchen.

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Pamonicutt, which means Walks First in Menominee, is an outlier in the larger scope of the culinary arts world, where only 22 percent of chefs and head cooks are women, and fewer than 1 percent of chefs are Indigenous. In Chicago, she’s a complete outlier.

“Chicago is a cultural mecca,” she told ICT. “You can find Salvadorian cuisine to Ethiopian cuisine. You can find food from every ethnicity under the sun here. The one thing you can’t find? Indigenous foods. And that makes no sense because Chicago is the ancestral home to so many Native nations.

“Why aren’t our foods present?”

Blueberry bison tamales are a popular item on the menu from Indigenous Chef Jessica Pamonicutt and her Ketapanen Kitchen, a pop-up and catering business that is opening doors for Indigenous cuisine in Chicago. She is a citizen of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. (Photo by Amelia Schafer for ICT)

Ketapanen Kitchen is rooted in her Menominee culture. The name, Ketapanen, is an expression of love in the Menominee language and was chosen by her son, who was only three at the time.

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Her menu features items like Blueberry Bison Tamales, Manoomin Meatballs and Medicine Berry Mousse.

Dreaming big

Cooking came naturally to Pamonicutt. At five years old, she got her first Easy Bake Oven, and from then she was hooked.

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“The most important times I can remember growing up in my home were the meals we shared every night, helping my mom cook and serving my family,” she said. “It was ingrained in me.”

Chef Jessica Pamonicutt and her husband, Tony Garcia, are executives of Ketapanen Kitchen, a catering and pop-up business that is opening doors for Indigenous cuisine in Chicago. Pamonicutt is a citizen of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. (Photo by Amelia Schafer for ICT)

But she had never pictured herself as a chef until her husband and business partner Tony Garcia gave her the necessary push.

“I started cooking for him when I first met him and he decided that I needed to do this for a living, and then he enrolled me in culinary school without my consent,” she said. “And he's like, ‘Oh, your orientation is on Monday.’ I'm like, ‘Well, here goes nothing, right? I'm not doing anything else.’ And I realized, ‘Wow, I love this. I can do this,’” she said.

Pamonticutt is able to infuse her own family recipes and heritage with new modern twists.

Ketapanen Kitchen’s most popular dish, a blueberry bison tamale, was inspired by her husband's Mexican heritage and her own dreams.

“I had been dreaming of bison and blueberries,” she said. “It kept coming to me in dreams. It probably took me a good month of tweaking my recipe to make it perfect, but it was built on a song and a dream,” Pamonticutt said.

Opening the doors

She is hoping to educate the public as she goes. Many foods, such as pumpkin, are Indigenous, but many people don’t know the history of their foods, she said.

“I realized I use so many of these things already in my menus, but it’s about how I can make this dish, and it is Indigenous because I’m Indigenous, the ingredients are Indigenous, and I cook them in our traditional ways,” she said. “What I want to showcase next and what I want to show the world is an Indigenous food that they didn’t realize.”

And her cooking has led her to new heights. Ketapanen Kitchen will be featured at the Chicago Field Museum’s Bistro Cafe in November in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

“Being a Native chef is an anomaly, and being a Native American woman executive chef is an even bigger anomaly,” she told ICT. “I want to be the person who opens the doors to change that, and Chicago is the perfect place for it.”

*Correction: Chef Jessica Pamonicutt operates the pop-up and catering business Ketapanen Kitchen in Chicago. Her name was misspelled in an earlier version of the story.

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