Native Foodways
Diné chef Bertina Cadman

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

RoseMary Diaz

“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.


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