Photo by Andi Murphy
Andi Murphy spent some time in the kitchen with White Mountain Apache Chef Nephi Craig at the Sunrise Resort Hotel.

In the Kitchen With Chef Nephi Craig

Andi Murphy

I wanted to visit the Sunrise Park Resort after I started learning about Native food and about White Mountain Apache chef, Nephi Craig.

So, one summer day, I decided to just do it.

I packed up in my little car, grabbed my boyfriend and we headed to Greer, Arizona. In just three and half hours, we went from our New Mexico desert in Albuquerque to a lush and green forest that hid an old and empty hotel. Summertime at the hotel is not very lively because most folks visit to ski the Sunrise slopes in the winter. You also can’t just show up and expect Chef Craig to be cooking up a regular menu of traditional Apache foods. You have to call way ahead of time, or organize a special dinner or event with him.

I planned my visit on the day the Arizona Mushroom Society had their annual dinner and meeting. Chef Craig prepared a 12-course dinner and invited me behind the curtain. And it was a treat.

As soon as I stepped into the kitchen, it was hot and loud. Fans were on, things were sizzling and Craig was handing out orders to his sous chef and two line cooks, who tried to keep up.

Craig moved quickly through the kitchen, but he was delicate and careful with all the ingredients, most of which were local and came from Ndéé Bikiyáá, the People’s Farm, on the White Mountain Apache reservation.

On this day, he invited several teenage volunteers from the farm to help in the kitchen. Some were preparing berries and others were washing dishes. Craig was patient and careful with them too, thankful for the work they put into this dinner as well.

“Say, ‘behind you’ when you’re walking behind someone,” Craig said to me. It was one of a few sentences he had time to share with me that night.

The kitchen was small with 10 people running around and I believe I did my best to stay out of the way. At least I didn’t knock anything over or smear anything.

It seemed like every 5 to 15 minutes, 40 small servings of a specific menu item went out the door to the Society people. Most dishes were very intricate.

“Here, try this,” Craig said as he handed a small fritter to me. “It’s Apache cornbread.” And it’s a balance of sweet and savory with a thin crispy crust. Craig gave me another one topped with Three Sisters salad and cured salmon. That was the one of the best things I had all year. The fresh vegetables, mixed with the cornbread and salty salmon was a perfect combination of salty, sweet and the textures mixed well, too; crisp, mushy, crunchy and meaty.

Here are some photos from my time in the kitchen with more dishes I tried.

Thin-cut porcini mushrooms are set out to dry. They added a little saltiness and earthiness to the rack of rabbit and roasted loin plate. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Apache cornbread—crispy on the outside and sweet and savory on the inside. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Forest mushroom risotto. Big and beautiful lobster and morel mushrooms were sautéed with butter to top this side dish. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Craig drops small rabbit rib racks in a pan of butter and fresh thyme. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Succulent rabbit ribs. Three ribs are barely a full bite of meat, but they pack a lot of flavor from the butter and thyme. Rabbit meat is very subtle, I couldn’t quite discern the flavor from chicken. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Craig cuts the rabbit racks. Three tiny rabbit ribs for each plate. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Plating in progress. Rabbit loin is set on a plate with fresh carrots and greens. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

A plate ready to be served. Rabbit ribs and loin, carrots, greens, mushrooms, topped with carrot greens. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

On the line. Apaches In The Kitchen, from left, Vincent Way, sous chef; Juwon Hendricks, line cook; Craig; and Andre Hume, line cook. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

White Mountain Apache Roots and Ancestral Grains: fingerling potatoes, carrots and quinoa. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Wild mushroom fricassee. This was easily my second, or third, favorite dish. Creamy, buttery and full of all kinds of earthy mushroom flavors. At the end of the night, Craig put together a dish for me and all the volunteers, which was a pile of all the leftover ingredients and extra plates. Mine was covered in mushroom fricassee and I’ll never forget it. It complimented, and somehow enhanced, all the other things on my plate, rabbit loin, quinoa, potatoes, risotto, carrots and lamb. This particular dinner made me appreciate mushrooms even more. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Craig puts a little bit of piñon cream on the last plate. Volunteers from the Ndéé Bikiyáá, the People’s Farm, help assemble dessert. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

Dessert. A Western Apache seed mix fritter on a honey-braised butternut squash is followed by a truffle, berries, piñon cream and popped amaranth. I had about three fritters because they’re so unique. It’s a rough mix of seeds with some sweet and bittery notes. My strategy was to fill my spoon with every ingredient and let fireworks happen. And it blew my mind a little bit. Everything was subtle in its own way, but they came together beautifully; not too sweet and with a lot of different textures. (Photo by Andi Murphy)

I spent more than three hours with Apaches in The Kitchen. Every second of it, I wanted to get in there and help. I wanted to get my hands in the squash blossom batter and the wild rice salad. It looked fun flipping over little Apache cornbreads and tossing seasoned butter over little rabbit rib racks. I can see why Craig does this for a living. He runs that kitchen how he wants and what comes out of it shows he respects food and the people who eat it.

Andi Murphy, Navajo, is an associate producer for Native America Calling radio program, a photographer and a foodie. Her food blog is titled “Toasted Sister.” She lives in Albuquerque and comes from Crownpoint, New Mexico.

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bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
Excellent article. Without the photos the description of each carefully and quickly prepared dish would be difficult for the mind to grasp. One can only imagine the aroma during the multiple prep stages. It only stands to reason that Chef Craig has a wide range of creativity to pluck from as he comes from a family wherein creativity and desire to please an audience is naturally instilled. Now I am inspired, I think I will make a batch of my woeful frybread that comes in various shapes and sizes.