Friday, December 16, 2011

Cultural Identity in Cuisine

It is a late night after service, my crew has all clocked out and left the property. I am in my office working on the schedule and specials for tomorrow. We got some soft shell crabs in today and we are thinking of doing a sandwich with them at the Sunset Grill and maybe as a "Day App" in our restaurant. I simply breaded the soft shell crabs with panko bread crumbs to "test" and give some of our crew their first taste of this delicacy. Good stuff, they all lit up with delight at the texture and flavor of the fried soft shells. We talked about what we can do with them. It was a brief creative discussion and it was back to breaking down the kitchen, the daily deep clean.

Somebody asked about our menu. There are a lot of different influences in our menu. Since historically in Apacheria there has been a strong military, Spanish, Mexican and American influence, our menu reflects that fact. We have a Hominy Stew on the menu that we consider "A Raiding Campaign Recipe" because we "raided" in New Mexico and got the recipe from eastern Dinetah/Pueblos, did some changes in flavor, technique and made it ours, made it a recipe only produced by White Mountain Apaches in the Kitchen.

The Three Sisters make appearances in various forms as well. (The "3 Sisters Corn Fritters are tasty.) We pay homage to South America with a Quinoa "the super-food" and Chimichurri. We also pay homage to Eurasia and classical French Traditions with fundamental culinary technique, but have amended the classical French Brigade Model to one that runs parallel with traditional Apache values and group structures of leadership.

We focus on the fundamentals. We are not a pretentious restaurant. We are a humble kitchen. We focus on training and we value strong work ethic. Our style has many solid influences and we are not trying to be like anybody but ourselves. We utilize elements of classical cuisine that we feel fit into the model we have created for ourselves. One of the basic and most important classical terms is "Mise En Place", which is a French phrase that translates into, "things in place". This is a physical method of organization, however it is even more importantly an intellectual pathway..."Mental Mise En Place". Simply put, it is having all ingredients, tools, knowledge and skill to execute a certain dish or operation. This is a phrase that we have translated into the Apache language and will soon be posted in our kitchen. 
  As individual members of the crew get stronger because of their own hard work and experiences, we all get stronger as a group. We talk about how we are kinesthetic learners relying on daily powerful sensory experiences with food. It is my hope that these powerful sensory experiences are carried like tools to rely on as our apprentices and mentors alike continue in their paths as cooks/chefs. I know that for me, this is an amazing opportunity to utilize years of physical and intellectual training in the development of our own style of cooking, our own regional cuisine.

If there are any experienced cooks and chefs that may be reading this blog, I assume they will know what we are dealing with. I hope that historians, educators, artists, nutritionists and anthropologists find this blog in cyberspace because it concerns us all. Even if you don't want to come and try our cooking, it is still a unique occurrence in cultural preservation and development. We utilize terms like Participant Observation and Sensory Experience to describe our work and how we learn. We draw on elements that have been in place since time immemorial to do something very "modern and cutting edge". We acknowledge the fact that those who came before us in our White Mountain Apache history have helped make this possible. I personally feel like food has become a living link between "worlds" or "realms" because how food communicates with me and how I communicate with and through food. It is a very personal interpretation that has taken my entire lifetime to develop. Since I feel that is true for me, I cannot keep what I have so I give it away freely to my staff. It is connected to my understanding of the word, duty.

It is also important to note that we are not the first to do this. I think change is a constant. This black and white image is of Natives at the Phoenix Indian boarding School in the early 1900's. This image is one example of those who have come before us as 'Apaches in the Kitchen'. It is also an example of another wave, a culture shift or shift in consciousness in Native America. Looking at this image here, I wonder where the children of these young men are today because in the early 1900's my great grandfather Joseph C. Ivans was a child. So although this image is old, it is very recent in the living family bloodlines and history of our Native Peoples.

So with all this history and cultural influence in mind, we push onward in the culinary arts. We send this blog as a message to the world from high in the White Mountains in Arizona, from a place that is sacred to us as White Mountain Apaches. I am very grateful for this opportunity to work and train with our staff as we work toward a common goal to produce great food and provide quality service. There will be bumps in the road but we can work through them as a group. Be on the look out for images of our Chef's Table that we will soon be doing in our kitchen. The Chef's Table will be inside the kitchen and seat four people so they have the interactive experience of seeing our culinary staff working to produce all that I attempt to describe here in this blog.

We are diligent and grateful...

Ashoog Bik'ehgo'ihi'dan!