Pascual Rodriguez Chef Desert Diamond
Lee Allen
Pascual Rodriguez is executive chef for the Tohono O’odham Tribe’s Desert Diamond Hotel Casino. “I created my Agave Restaurant menu with a balance of tastes and layers of flavor meant not to be simply tasted, but to be experienced,” he says.

Aromatic Artistry: Cooking Competitions and Restoring Ancestral Cuisine

Lee Allen

Chefs love to cook, that’s a given. And despite the intrinsic indigenous ideology of sharing, a number of Native chefs love to compete—utilizing their culinary secrets, cooking skills, and favorite recipes to see who can edge out the competition.

Indian Country Today Media Network has followed several Native American kitchen artists, and some of their non-Native casino and resort chef brethren, over several seasons to witness their ongoing battle of the skillets. They compete best at the Chefs Challenge event, an annual clash of the spatulas that highlights the Arizona Indian Gaming Association’s yearly expo.

The 2014 challenge took place on the Yavapai Nation’s Fort McDowell Adventure Site where 8 resort chefs fired up their grills and competed for top honors.

Chef’s Challenge 2013 title-holder Ron Dimas, of Talking Stick Resort, impressed attendees with his mesquite boar rib and acorn squash creation. (Lee Allen)

While they each have their secret ingredients, they all aim to highlight heritage in their cook-offs. “Food is very powerful and everything goes back to our roots for me,” says Nephi Craig, executive chef at Arizona’s Sunrise Park Resort, and previous winner of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association’s annual Chef’s Challenge.

As founder of the Native American Culinary Association even Newsweek said Craig is acting on his dream to “restore and reinvent the largely forgotten cuisine of his forbearers.” Using local ingredients like acorns, seeds, nuts, corn, squash, rabbit, and venison, Craig doesn’t call his creations Native American cuisine, but indigenous foods that represents a culture defined by diversity, history, and resiliency.

RELATED: Redefining Native American Cuisine By Culture

Chef at Casino del Sol in Tucson Enrique Alcantar, Pascua Yaqui, subscribes to that theory in dishes like his award-winning braised buffalo with white tepary bean cassoulet. “I like to go lean and healthy with short ribs and tepary beans, a diet staple for thousands of years, traditional foods cooked in contemporary style.”

Chef Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa, founder of New Mexico’s Coyote Café in Santa Fe, likes to gather natural ingredients from the land—prickly pear, yucca blossoms, purslane, and other wild greens. Frank also bridges historical with modern in creations such as an ordinary blue corn tortilla complimented by blue corn gnocchi arrowheads and guajillo chili sauce. “Food is sacred,” she says. “What you eat is a gift of a person’s culture.”

Enrique Alcantar, an enrolled member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, has been creating innovative dishes using local and indigenous products for over 20 years. (Lee Allen)

On the menu at the 2014 Chef’s Challenge at Arizona’s Yavapai Nation We-Ko-Pa Resort were dishes such as mesquite boar rib accompanied by acorn squash; smoked elk chilaquiles with a red chile reduction, topped with a fried quail egg; carne asada tacos with roasted red pepper salsa, and grilled Navajo beef rib eye with lotus root and patty pan squash.

“I continue my grandmother’s influence of cooking pre-Columbian food grown and harvested locally,” said chef Christian Movassaghi, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

If you’d like to try following in the chef’s footsteps, here are some suggestions:

Elk Chilaquiles

Casino Arizona’s chef Movassaghi feeds large groups, so tailor his efforts to your own needs. He takes 40 pounds of elk tenderloin, skillet-searing it before smoking it for two hours. When done and sliced, top some tortilla chips with chorizo and melted cheese, add the tenderloin slices and garnish as desired—he uses a pinot noir-red chile reduction with sliced red serranos.

Blueberry Posole

Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie uses traditional ceremonial blueberries in his posole. Taking one pound of seared pork, he sweats onion, thyme, and bay leaf in a pot, then adds paprika, cumin, lime juice and zest before combining it with the pork, tomato sauce, chicken stock, garlic, and pureed red chile, then adding hominy and blueberries and simmering. Finish by garnishing with cilantro.

The Twin Arrows Casino Resort crew grilled up Navajo-raised beef rib eye with pan-seared jumbo scallops and patty pan squash. Executive Chef Hector Vasquez says it’s his mission to present Navajo cuisine and culture to visiting diners. (Lee Allen)

Television chef Lidia Bastianich, of “Lidia Celebrates America,” who cooked on camera with her Navajo counterpart, notes: “Food is the basis of who we are. It helps us to understand each other better.”

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