The global emphasis on Indigenous foods has transformed Indigenous cuisine and as such chefs now have more to offer than just ingredients
More Native American chefs are opening restaurants — with future generations and sustainability in mind
Native chefs Jon Baldwin and Zardlelia Yamani sit together with curling-backed wooden chairs on a bare table, sipping iced tea, watching the sun set over the Mayan Ruins of El Calvado.
It’s a small place, open only a few nights a week, and a green space in between buildings, which may explain why. But it is still reflective of how the two Native Americans – Michael Wolfe of Villanova and Kat Cowl and Larry Ormsby of New York – have taken what they see as their natural food heritage and instead turned it into their livelihood, turning their restaurants into sustainable parts of their communities’ economies.
“What we do comes naturally,” Wolfe, 43, of Villanova University said when discussing the move to “inventive on-farm cafe” Zebia, opened in 2012 in Washington DC’s U Street area.
“We like to see how the soil works, and cook at a cool temperature, with fruits and vegetables. How do they get here? When was the last time we had healthy, organic foods? So we had to make it our own,” Wolfe says.
It is not unusual for this level of Indigenous-produced food and related businesses to exist in other parts of the country, particularly in places like Denver and Wisconsin. But despite this global spotlight Native American chefs like Wolfe and Yamani are now undertaking large-scale facilities on their own lands, rather than in areas heavily influenced by the agroindustry.
A potato-packing plant in Secwepemc, Oklahoma. Photograph: Alamy
The battle lines are drawn. “The agroindustry is not educating people in how to use Native American foods,” explains Yamani, 26, a Kansas City chef.
Many Native Americans do not know that the Kentucky sweet potato is not indigenous. Photograph: Alamy
In Austin, Texas, Zebia supplies over 200 restaurants in the city. And like Chez Panisse, Open air Cafe and The Mapping Fire, which all employ Native Americans and are owned by chefs with their own direct connection to the land, three Native American-owned businesses are expanding, creating a new generation of potential career options.
The full Zebia menu at Zebia in Washington DC. Photograph: Zebia
Lillian Jung, 36, the co-owner of Sunshine Khao, a restaurant on the Wabanaki reservation in Massachusetts, says her reservation members like the idea that everyone in the restaurant is Native American.
“I think one of the things that we bring to the table is knowledge, and knowledge is always valuable,” Jung said. “I came from an online course for chefs, and we learned a lot about using Nueva Roja mushrooms, and that’s where I got the idea to turn the menu into a sort of seed stage. We use mushrooms growing in the ground because they grow in huge swaths, so we have tons of mushrooms on the menu and talk about community and creating sustainability in the community and in the community’s eyes.”
Many Native Americans do not know that the Kentucky sweet potato is not indigenous. US National Parks even calls it a “grapefruit.” Meanwhile, a Frito Chipotle plant in Nevada grows wild potatoes on a farm even though they are not part of the Navajo or Hopi languages.
New generations of Native American chefs seek to change that – not so much with restaurants and restaurants open on the reservation but on village level. “Young Native Americans are actually carrying the torch,” Yamani said. “There’s a lot of pride in being Native and growing your own food and knowing how to make your own food – we don’t have to take anything from anywhere. That’s who we are.”