Monday, September 26, 2011

Sense of Direction

Native American Cuisine is a term that is too broad for what I/we have been trying to achieve. Although it is applicable to where we are at collectively as professional Native American cooks and chefs, but where we are situated on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation in Northeastern Arizona another term is needed. I have been brainstorming in an effort to "define" what and who our cooking represents and three terms come to mind right away.

Apache Cuisine- "The cooking and culinary traditions of the Apache people."  (To me, this sounds generic and a little bit too "Hollywood" for my personal liking. It is also nearly as broad as "Native American Cuisine" because of the number of different bands of Apache people.)

Western Apache Cuisine- The cooking and culinary traditions of the various bands of Apache bands in the western United States. This sounds good but is still very broad, although the bands of Apache share similarities, I'm sure there are major culinary differences when it comes to the ritual of obtaining, preparing and consuming food.

White Mountain Apache Cuisine- A cuisine which is heavily dictated by the seasons, wild flora and fauna. There is a heavy reliance on beef as a result of local Apache cattle associations. This form of cooking is more isolated and is rooted in outdoor cookery, raiding, hunting, fishing, and foraging. Agriculture is seasonal also. This cuisine is heavily influenced by the concept of "Raiding" in history. For example, today an "outside culinary raiding campaign" could be considered an individual or group effort to obtain new foods, ideas, technology and concepts that are acceptable/desirable from the non-Apache world.

These terms are how I would explain or define cuisine if asked about the cuisine of my people. The third term fits us best. It is still open to amendment and development but it sounds right. It is important to note that not all people label our foods in this way and I think and write from a chef's perspective and this is what I feel describes our micro-region. White Mountain Apache Cuisine can only be produced in this region. It may be reproduced in other areas of the world, but in my opinion it must be created here in the White Mountains and prepared by White Mountain Apaches. That is exactly what we are doing today.

Now with a rough outline of our cuisine, we can operate and move our culinary team in a direction with principles. Much of the professional terminology is new to the crew, but they have been utilizing and engaging cooking techniques which the terminology describes for years. I see the importance of categorizing ourselves in cuisine. The development of a cultural identity in cuisine and professional cookery is very important to me and that importance will be shared on a regular basis with the our staff. The reinforcement of cultural culinary development with "the bigger picture" in mind is very important because without a realistic vision and culinary foresight, we would be operating or cooking without a sense of direction.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Triumph of Principle

We are back in the kitchen. Fortunately, I am still at the helm of the kitchen. I know we took many things for granted. Lessons have been learned and growth has been achieved. I am still very proud of this culinary staff of White Mountain Apaches. We strayed on the path a bit. Nevertheless, we are committed to cultivating an environment of learning and discipline in our kitchen, while producing cuisine based on fundamental culinary principles. We came very close to losing out on some important opportunities in our collective culinary evolution as a team, a crew, or since we are Apaches, our band.

As the chef of this team, I make a commitment to my team and to myself to take advantage of opportunity when it presents itself, to remain a disciplined and committed teacher, and to remain lucid, realistic and sober. I make this commitment public to the world via Internet because I need to honor principles of Apache leadership, honor and integrity.

I learned important lessons over the summer. Reflecting on my path from being a culinary student, a line cook, sous chef, and now executive chef I can see where I have misplaced value. When I was much younger I was fortunate to experience what many take years to accomplish. I liken it to a favorite film of mine, 'The 36 Chambers of Shaolin' where climbing the mountain to the Shaolin Temple to discover the ancient secrets of Kung Fu was the mission. I too, at a young age climbed the culinary mountain to "discover and learn the secrets of the culinary arts" from the masters. Comparing the culinary arts to kung-fu may sound silly to you but a serious cook will understand.

So figuratively speaking, I climbed the mountain to discover the secrets of the culinary arts. It was a difficult journey filled with pleasure, pain, blood, fire and flesh. All this was driven by a fierce and blinding ambition. I had a fascination with the mystique of high level professional cookery or "the cooking of the masters" as some say. I feel is as if I have reached the mountain top only to discover that there were no "secrets" of the culinary arts that masters held. I learned that there were only principles. It was the principles of being a decent human being that defined a great chef!

All this time I had misplaced value and allowed misinformed people/chefs to form my ideals. I had to travel around the world and to the top of the mountain, experience loss and failure in order to appreciate the true value of other people and universal principles of humanity and the culinary arts. Now, with this humbling personal realization of self and my craft, I can see very clearly what is important to me as a chef. We, as Apaches in the Kitchen, hold no Michelin stars, hell we hold no accolades at all. Nevertheless we work toward cultivating an environment that promotes/values work ethic, leadership, integrity, responsibility, organization and discipline. It can honestly be said that we are simply honoring basic human principles. We are honoring and working toward adhering to Apache values that have been present since time immemorial within the Apache way of life.

As a chef, I realize that I searched the world for culinary identity, when all I had to do was look within my own Apache was only then did I see and witness the triumph of principle.