With more people paying attention to the quality of the meals they consume, and the impact of the food industry on the environment, Native American fare has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years.
The tribes that populated the Americas before the influx of European settlers not only devised ways to prepare the varied plants and wildlife local to their regions but also developed farming systems that sustained their cultures for thousands of years and ultimately nourished the rest of the globe. From corn to tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts and chocolate, Native American-originated food accounts for approximately 60 percent of the world’s supply.
While many Indigenous traditions were all but wiped out after the Americas were colonized, some lessons from their dining tables have endured. Here are seven chefs upholding their ancestors’ culinary standards and bringing attention to this long-enduring form of eating.
Raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, Sean Sherman can easily recall the unsavory smells of his family’s government-issued rations of yellow cheese, canned beef and powdered milk. Fortunately, they supplemented these portions with locally grown vegetables and wild game. By age 13, Sherman was applying his culinary knowledge in a string of restaurant jobs. Despite achieving success as a head chef and café owner, it wasn’t until a visit to Mexico in his mid-30s that Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, began to seriously study Indigenous methods for gathering, preparing and storing food.
In 2014 he founded the Sioux Chef, an organization dedicated to “revitalizing” Native cuisine, before publishing the James Beard Award-winning cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen in 2017. Sherman has since focused on running the celebrated Minneapolis restaurant Owamni, which features a “decolonized menu” free of European ingredients, and the Indigenous Food Lab, a training center for entrepreneurial-minded cooks.
Despite growing up in the urban environs of Oakland, California, Crystal Wahpepah received invaluable lessons in nature’s bounties through summertime visits to her maternal grandparents’ tribal land in Oklahoma. Similarly, the limitations of her classic European training at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school proved surmountable in her quest to deliver the delights of Native food to the public. With an assist from La Cocina, a San Francisco-based nonprofit for women and minority entrepreneurs, the budding chef launched her catering business, Wahpepah’s Kitchen, in 2010. She subsequently became the first Native American contestant on the Food Network’s “Chopped” in 2016 and saw a dream come to fruition with the launch of the Wahpepah’s Kitchen restaurant in 2021.
While her status as a culinary star was cemented with a James Beard Emerging Chef Award nomination in 2022, the Kickapoo Nation member makes it clear that she’s not in the job for the accolades. “Being a Native American chef is more than being a chef. It’s deeper than that,” she told The Guardian. “It’s about how you connect to the community and health. It’s about how we impact people and what we put in our foods.”
A childhood split between Oklahoma’s Osage Nation reservation and Kansas City, Missouri, encapsulates the dual influences on Stephanie “Pyet” DeSpain, who claims both Prairie Band Potawatomi and Mexican ancestry. She ultimately used her culinary training to combine the best of both worlds, leading to the launch of her Pyet’s Plate private chef service in 2016. Although she found a greater demand for her Indigenous fusion cuisine after moving to Los Angeles, DeSpain still struggled for years, weathering spells of homelessness as she sought to keep her business afloat. Fortunately, the relentless effort began paying off in 2021: Along with earning recognition as one of Entrepreneur‘s top private chefs in L.A., she began competing on Gordon Ramsay’s new reality program, “Next Level Chef,” and was formally crowned the first season’s winner in early 2022. The hustle has hardly abated for DeSpain, who leveraged her publicity into a pop-up restaurant and a gig in one of Ramsay’s kitchens, though she’s grateful she can serve as a role model for her people while doing what she loves.
For Nuxalk Nation member Inez Cook, an immersion in the tastes and aromas of Native cuisine brought both financial and immense spiritual benefits. Forced into foster care as part of the Canadian government’s “Sixties Scoop” assimilation program, Cook developed a taste for her adoptive mother’s Dutch-Russian meals and later sought out eclectic dishes around the world as a longtime flight attendant. She returned to British Columbia to open a Native restaurant, Salmon n’ Bannock, by the start of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, drawing the attention of curious tourists but also the suspicion of a Native community that knew nothing about its owner. Cook was soon welcomed into the fold and reconnected with biological relatives before receiving her Nuxalk name in a traditional ceremony. The well-traveled chef has since authored Sixties Scoop, a children’s book about her early-life displacement, and continues to make up for a late introduction to Native fare with her fearless improvisations in the kitchen.
Freddie Bitsoie was well on his way to an anthropology degree at the University of New Mexico when a professor pointed out that his papers all revolved around the topic of Indigenous food systems. The Utah-born Diné (Navajo) took the hint and enrolled in culinary school, but a more enlightening education came after graduation when he began learning Native techniques from the cooks he was assigned to mentor at reservation casinos.
Bitsoie went on to found FJBits Concepts, an organization devoted to promoting Indigenous foodways and became executive chef of the Fire Rock Casino in Church Rock, New Mexico. After winning the Living Earth Festival Native Chef Cooking Competition in 2013, Bitsoie took over the high-profile executive chef role at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Café in Washington, D.C. While Covid forced the closure of the venue, Bitsoie remained busy by putting the finishing touches on Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian (2021), a cookbook he describes as an “introduction to Native cuisine.”
Nephi Craig developed an unquenchable passion for the White Mountain Apache and Diné recipes of his childhood, but, like others on this list, he found himself frustrated by the lack of Native representation in culinary school. That prompted his founding of the Native American Culinary Association, which began hosting an annual Indigenous Food Symposium in 2011, and the debut of his Apaches in the Kitchen blog that same year. Meanwhile, he returned to White Mountain Apache territory in Arizona as executive chef of the Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort before taking a step back to focus on getting sober.
Now a recovery program coordinator for the tribe’s Rainbow Treatment Center and executive chef of its Café Gozhóó, Craig has sought to use his experience as part of a broader effort to lift a community still reeling from decades of forced reservation life. “That’s what we’re attempting to do with the Café Gozhóó,” he explained to Native News in 2021. “Take care of us, get more people cooking and thinking about fresh food… Then we can think outward. Right now, it’s about circulating what’s left and reconnecting the shattered mirror of our identity.”
Loretta Barrett Oden
Born into Oklahoma’s Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Loretta Barrett Oden got her start in the food industry through her first husband’s family, founders of the Van’s Pig Stand barbecue chain. By the 1990s, she was ready to go out on a limb with the Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an eatery that garnered national attention as perhaps the first to offer a decolonized menu. While the café closed in 2003, Oden returned to the spotlight three years later with the Emmy Award-winning PBS cooking series “Seasoned with Spirit.”
Following years of travel, along with her work with the Oklahoma Historical Society and the National Indian Health Service, Oden showed she was still willing to roll up her sleeves as a chef and consultant for the Thirty Nine Restaurant in Oklahoma’s First Americans Museum. “To be able to tell the stories and to talk about this food and to really speak to the health issues, the creativity of our foodways, how our foods traveled and came back to us, how we’re still here, (it shows) we’re still here, we’re not a relic in a museum,” she told CNN in 2021.