Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Our Chef's Table: White Mountain Apache Cookery

Our Chef's Table seats four people and is right inside the kitchen. The purpose of a Chef's Table is to offer the guest a complete kitchen experience. It affords the diner the opportunity to chat with us about our food, our culinary traditions and our approach to Native American Cuisine. I start the diners off by introducing them to the other Native Chefs and their stations in our kitchen.
In this photo is Sean Johnson who works the Grill Station, next to him is Marques Hinton on the Saute Station and next to Marques is Deron Lee aka 'Skip' filling in for William Hawkins in this photo. This is a busy line and the guys work very well together. Once Chef's Table patron said the kitchen, "was like a well oiled machine." We like to think the same thing.

After introductions the guests are seated and the meal begins. It is important to keep in mind that each Chef's Table is different, meaning that the menu changes and so does the plating schemes. 

In this photo above is a "classic" mixture of Roasted Dry Corn, Black Walnuts and Acorns, commonly called, "Apache Trail Mix". Each time this is served to our chef's table diners who happen to be White Mountain Apaches, it sparks intense sensory experiences from each individual. This classic and humble combination becomes an important conversational dish. Memories are shared of growing up on the White Mountain Apache Reservation and collecting the three ingredients separately while receiving strict instructions to not eat them because they are only for winter food storage. It is quite appropriate that we are serving this as a first course. It also sets the tone for the rest of the meal that this is White Mountain Apache cooking, or cuisine prepared by chefs that understand our own intimate culinary traditions. Serving this simple combination is a powerful example of where food takes us emotionally and spiritually while we are rooted in the physical present day. 

Pictured here is a Three Sisters Corn Fritters course served with a preserved lemon dipping sauce(this comes off William Hawkins' station). We individually cook White Navy Beans, Anasazi Beans and Tepary beans. We roast corn in the husks and cut it off the cob. Zucchini and yellow squash is grated on a box grater and all the ingredients are stirred into a thick fritter batter that is seasoned with parsley, thyme, lemon, salt and pepper. Delicious.

This course is a Roasted Butternut Squash Soup Shooter with Bruniose Butternut, Brown Butter and Sage to garnish. The soup is very luxurious in texture and flavor because it has been strained four to five times through a fine strainer.

We do a number of soups and choosing a favorite one for the chef's table is difficult because all the soups are delicious. When we develop the courses for the Chef's Table we work toward using ingredients that are indigenous to the Americas and also have some sort of important culinary history behind them be it scientific, agricultural, nutritional, historical and even spiritual.

We have a strict respect for the classical French culinary method. However, we have taken elements of the classical culinary model of hierarchy and amended it to fit a model that fits ideals of Apache leadership and caring for the group/band. We utilize elements of our history to push our cuisine even further giving our style of cookery depth, giving it soul.

The next course here is a Shrimp Ravioli, Roasted Bay Scallops, Tomato Basil Cream and Tomato Confit. As we focus on training in our kitchen, handmade pasta is a very important technique that is learned and repeated over and over because like our kitchen signage reads, "Perfection is a direction, not an end." We are influenced by many great chefs of our generation like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller (just to name two).

Na'ithl'tlool'le hik'e Nk'oozhi' (Tarantula and Lemon) 
This is a simple Soft Shell Crab with a roasted garlic aioli and a lemon wrap. A small amount of chiffinod of iceberg and romaine lettuce to add freshness but it is really about the Soft Shell Crab and lemon.

I wrote in a previous entry about when we got the crabs in and some of our staff tasted this delicacy for the first time. Well, the soft shell crab is now a kitchen favorite and will continue to work its way into our menu and onto our Chef's Table. I suppose we could call it "Ch'oosh" or bug OR "Na'ithl'tloo'le" or tarantula in the Apache Language. "Nk'oozhi" meaning lemon in Apache...

I am learning to read, write and speak my Apache Language even as I write this blog. It is a powerful experience to learn the Apache Language through food and also in my adulthood. For me, Apache is a second language, nevertheless I am very determined to learn. The Apache Language is a very important element of our particular style of cooking and articulating our culinary traditions in the language is a long term goal of mine. Many, but not all of cooks in our kitchen can speak fluently in Apache, hence the Apache Culinary Translation Project. We recognize that it is a paramount and fundamental practice that must be incorporated into our culinary philosophy and into our daily lives as White Mountain Apache Chefs.

In this course here is our homage to the "Salmon People" of the great Pacific Northwest with Crispy Skin Salmon, Three Sisters and Sauce N'dee(Apache).  Marques Hinton on the Saute Station has mastered this sauce and executing crispy skin every time by "squeegeeing" the excess water out of the skin with the blade of his knife before putting it in the pan. Beautiful.

Western Apache Acorn Stew, in my mind is linked to many elements of Apache history. I have written about the long military presence in our region or "Apacheria" as it was once called, this dish to me is connected to years of starvation and survival. It is connected to humility and the bounty of an appreciated harvest of foraged White Oak Acorns that Apache Grandmothers, Mothers, Daughters and children would collect in the fall. Combine this with meat(beef, venison, horse etc,) that was hunted by the patriarchs of the family unit and this humble, historical and delicious dish comes into our world. Along with bleached white flour that could have come from the military food rations to create the dumplings and the delicious, charred, crispy yet soft Western Apache Racket Bread and when all the ingredients are combined something very regional and very Apache is served. We simply add another humble "delicacy" of bone marrow, because bone marrow was and still is only served or reserved for a special few. It is such an honor to serve this dish as we have here. I feel like we have reached directly into our history, made a connection and brought generations of taste and appreciation to our time. I feel like my ancestors are happy with this beautiful dish we present here on our Chef's Table.

Here is our homage to classical French technique and culinary tradition. This is "Duck Two Ways", on the left is a classically salt cured/seasoned Crispy Skin Duck Confit over Braised Lettuce with a honey duck gastrique. On the right is a Sliced Crispy Skin Duck Breast glazed with fennel, coriander, orange and honey, it is served over Butter Braised Fennel with Orange Segments and Duck Jus Bruniose. ("Perfectly Executed French Laundry Style Bruniose")

 This final Meat Course off Sean Johnson's Grill Station is a Charred New York Strip over Truffled Yukon Potato Puree, Zucchini Ribbons, Pearls, Braised Radish and Pearl Onions.

It is served with the vibrant green Sauce Nana. We named the vibrant green sauce after a historical figure in Apache history named NANA. Below is a photograph of this figure in our recent history.

As we continue to push forward as a group of White Mountain Apache Chefs in our kitchen, I feel that we are directly connected to a powerful history. I have mentioned before and will continue to say it, that we, as 'Apaches in the Kitchen' are a part of something special in Indian Country. We are forging a path in the culinary arts based on a very real and historical foundation of Apache truths and values.

Apache food has become a living connection to the past. Native Foods has linked us to the past while providing a pathway to the future, a pathway that can enrich an entire generation of Native and Non-Native Chefs alike. It is a grass roots effort to create something out of nothing, because our minds are powerful. It is with Apache ingenuity that we collect elements that have been in place in our culture since time immemorial and apply them to something that is very difficult to do--professional cooking and becoming chefs. I feel like we are contributing to our community from a position of integrity. I feel that cooking and cuisine has enabled us to become the change that we want to see in our community.

left to right: Michael Ivans Jr of CBQ(Stabbs), Deron Lee of CBQ(Stabbs), Chef Nephi Craig of Whiteriver
Marques Hinton of McNary, Sean Johnson of McNary (Not Pictured William Hawkins)
Sunrise Park Resort Hotel 2011-2012 Winter Ski Season

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