Native chef: 'Native American cuisine is the mother cuisine'
By Krista Allen
Western Agency Bureau
MOENKOPI, Ariz., Oct. 10, 2013
(Times photo – Krista Allen)
Nephi Craig is putting on a striped apron over his black, crisp chef coat. In a minute he's going to dice several smooth-skinned summer squash that he bought from last Saturday's food market.
"Cooking is a very important part of my life," said the 33-year-old culinary bonhomie as he started his cooking demonstration in front of sophisticated spectators that couldn't wait to possibly taste what he would be creating.
Before cooking, Craig spoke about taste during the 2012 NACA Indigenous Food Culture Conference, the kind that focuses on heirloom foods, those dating back at least 50 years and unchanged by modern methods of food production.
"Taste memory is very important," said Craig. "Foods are the carrier of ancestral knowledge."
Indeed, taste memory traces the experiences of modern-day explorers who rediscover culturally rich, forgotten foods and return them to tables to experience and savor.
"Memory doesn't necessarily come from us," said Craig. "Taste memory is cosmic."
Craig said taste is mnemonic, which means it allows a person to recollect situations, recall feelings, remember places, and reconnect with the past like in the animated feature, Ratatouille. The movie underscores that mnemonic function of taste when the monstrous food critic Anton Ego bites into Chef Remy's ratatouille and is transported back to his blissful childhood.
During his own childhood, Craig remembers making brownies and chocolate chip cookies to sell to his neighbors in Whiteriver, Ariz., where he grew up.
"Way early on in my life -- cooking (was) a way to make a few bucks," said Craig. "It was fun, it was cool. I used to like it when my cookies came out nice and round, kind of puffy and not all flat and melted."
Craig said cooking has changed his life in a very positive way.
"But when I got to culinary school, the first thing that I noticed was, it's a whole different world of how people perceived food," said Craig. "What they were teaching me didn't match how I had grown up."
"They were teaching all these different things like, there's only three mother cuisines in the world: Asian, French, and Italian -- that's it!"
Needless to say, Craig disagrees.
"My stance today is that Native American cuisine is the mother cuisine or the fourth cuisine in that (short) list," said Craig, who traveled widely and worked in Arizona's only five-star French restaurants Mary Elaine's in Scottsdale.
"When I got to Mary Elaine's, it was like boot camp," recalled Craig. "They tore me down and hazed me for six months, trying to break me, to see if the only brown guy in the whole kitchen could take it. I mean, seriously, the only (American Indian) in the kitchen was me, out of 32 trade cooks from three-starred restaurants to five-star places in America, all these people that were chefs in their own right."
Craig, who is White Mountain Apache and Navajo, is a master of space and intergalactic cuisine.
Today, he is the executive chef at Sunrise Park Resort and is known as "the chef that does Native American cuisine."
When asked what dishes define who he is, he replied, "I really enjoy Western Apache acorn stew and racket bread. I also really appreciate Navajo steamed corn stew with frybread."
Later in his presentation, he talked about food heritage - preserving cultural identities and agricultural knowledge.
Craig ended his presentation by making a simple dish called, "The Three Sisters," made up of corn, beans and squash along with a side of quinoa.
"My Apache and Navajo bloodlines play an extremely important role in my life as a chef. My indigenous identity is what informs my style of cooking."
Craig attended Scottsdale Community College.
Craig is the chef and founder of the Native American Culinary Association, also known as NACA, is an organization/network that is dedicated to the research, refinement, and development of Native American Cuisine, according to Craig's blog (apachesinthekitchen.blogspot.com/). NACA has been developed to provide authentic, quality representation of Native Peoples in professional cookery. NACA also serves as a networking tool for professional Native chefs and emerging culinary talent. The organization provides training, workshops and lecture sessions on Native American Cuisine to schools, restaurants and tribal entities from across America and abroad.
Craig has served as head chef for four international tasting dinners. These culinary events were held in London, UK; Cologne, Germany; and Osaka, Japan. Chef Craig has also served as head chef in Sao Paulo, Brazil working for the United States Consulate and Senac College providing training, workshops, and various tasting dinners showcasing Native American Cuisine during the Shared Indigenous Heritage Festival in April 2007.