Sunday, February 6, 2011

A restaurant as a life of its own. I believe there are "kitchen gods" that work in conjunction with the order of the universe.  Since I have been here, I have been learning so much about my staff and myself. Things never go according to plan and the best thing to do when that happens is to in that situation is to stay calm and do not panic. The WORST (and disheartening) thing an individual can do when the pressure builds is to give up or engage in some other form of self-sabotage. Standing up and admitting that one needs help is more respectful than suffering through something because of stubborn pride is unnecessary. There is power in asking for help.

It is just the nature of professional cooking that one will fail. Failure cannot be avoided. Failure is a fact of this path. Although nobody likes to admit defeat but there is beauty in failing. The most important lessons in cooking (and life) come from failure, but how you deal with it determines much of the remainder of your path and how the "kitchen gods" will look down upon you. One of the most well-known stories of failure is of probably the best known and hands-down-one-of-the-best-chefs-to-ever-walk-the-earth, Thomas Keller. His example of failure in New York City with a restaurant Rakel, changed the trajectory of his career and ultimately his life. Thomas Keller openly talks about this in many of his presentations on professional cooking, business lectures and to his staff I'm sure. Keller's example of persistence despite failure resulted in him opening one of the best restaurants in the world, The French Laundry.

These topics come to mind in this blog entry because I have seen people in my path as a cook struggle, not ask for help, not take advantage of the repeated attempts to identify and remedy issues, only to walk out on their team. There are people who tough it out, buckle down and go above what they are asked to do and shine. The characteristic that enables people to pull through and persevere is, in my mind a very Apache one, tenacity.

To this point there have been no prolific and outstanding Native American Chefs in our culinary history like Keller, Boulud, Ducasse, Point, Careme and Escoffier that completely changed how people looked at food and restaurants. That fact in mind who do we look to as we work toward developing Native Foods? Although we don't have influential "chefs" in Native American history, we do have very influential and very important historical figures in the history of all tribes in America. During very dark periods in Native American History like the Indian Wars, Manifest Destiny and the development of Indian Reservations, common traits to the survival of Apache people were endurance, commitment to the group/camp, responsibility, intense passion, intelligence, adaptation and tenacity.

It is the ingrained and inherited tenacious Apache mindset that works so well in professional cooking. All of those qualities I mentioned are requirements for any cook to succeed on the pathway to becoming a professional cook and eventually a chef. Since we talked about not having important chefs in our history, we do have important characters such as leaders, headmen of clans and families, medicine people, grandparents, elders, hunters and noted individuals in history that fought to preserve what they believed to be of great value for their posterity. Those important tenacious characters in our history are given new life and continue to be remembered in our dishes, our menus, our stories and most importantly in our culinary mindsets.
This is so much more than "just cooking".


  1. Impressive post—I remember Bernard Second from the Mescalero Reservation. As I recall, he talked about how important spirituality was to surviving the hardships one encounters in the journey of Life. There was always a sense of Change going on, as the Sunrise Ceremony reminds us.
    On a very personal level, I really haven’t met that many Native people who were responsible for running a restaurant and who were focused on traditional foods. One was in Vancouver, B.C., and he was having a lot of health problems, and the other was a First Nations woman in Toronto (the first time I’ve ever eaten Canadian goose). I know many others, including one of my relatives who have operated more standard places, where the food served was really no different than what you’d find in a road-side diner. In my business travel across the U.S. and Canada, I’ve often been billeted in reservation Casino hotels, where their restaurants were often quite nice, but again, were run by non-Natives and the menu was no different from standard fare.
    I’ve often thought of how complicated it is to really run a business—the skill set is so varied. In other words—it’s not just enough to be a creative and excellent food artist—there’s the whole business, economic, publicity, staff administration, working with financial partners, state and federal regulations and whatever tribal ones are added, etc. No wonder it’s necessary to ask for help—it’s hard to imagine a single person being able to know about such a lot of details—and details that can change as different regulations come through. In fact, in writing up my interview with the executive chef at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Café, I was looking at the website of the Montana based intertribal group that supplies him 250,000 pounds of buffalo meat a year. The Intertribal Bison Cooperative is advertising for staff who will be traveling to different reservations to make certain they are meeting USDA standards. At any rate—good to know you’re updating your blog on a regular basis, and hope it helps you sort out your thoughts.

  2. it's good to hear you see failure as a partner, rather than an adversary.

  3. Great post Nephi! The Fort has been invited to the James Beard House in New York to do a bison dinner with Silver Oak wines. My talented Executive Chef is part Jicarilla Apache/Hispanic and his dad is polish! His name is Geoffrey Groditski, and he asked Navajo chef Walter Whitewater to assit him to cook for 85 Beard house patrons including national press June 22, 2011. The Kitchen Gods will see to it that American Indian cuisine, especially buffalo steak, buffalo bone marrow and tongue, and the three sacred sisters are featured. Thank you for sharing this post with me!
    Holly Arnold Kinney

  4. Hi Nephi
    I Love what you are doing here ,its looks as though ,the passion of ones culture and heritage through food, is not limited to a few people.I am on a similar journey to your own ,also with interesting connections to your native people .
    Check out my website and especially the blog.
    Hope to speak to you soon Nephi
    Great to see this
    Thanks again
    "Feeding Someone Is the Greatest Gift You Can Give
    It Is extending Human Life"

    "All Living Revolves Around The Hearth"
    Emmett Mc Court
    Feast or Famine
    Irish Food Heritage Project