Brian Yazzie defends Native American recipes
Chef Brian Yazzie is only 33 years old, but he has already mingled with several titans of the culinary world. If being blocked on Twitter matters, it’s: Martha Stewart, Gordon Ramsey and Southern star Sean Brock. Yazzie, who grew up on a reservation in the Navajo Nation, tried to open up dialogues with everyone about how they got their Indigenous-inspired recipes, like Oneida corn soup. And every time? Blocked.
“Have a non-native person do [those dishes] and not having that connection, and just using it for profit – I started questioning these bosses, âYazzie says. Based in St. Paul, Yazzie has spent the last few years making his name much harder to brush off on Twitter. He marked his companies, which include Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and a growing media presence â like Chef Yazzie.
In 2014, the all-native concept of local James Beard Award winner Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, gave Yazzie his start as a chef. Two years later, Yazzie and his fiancÃ©e Danielle Polk (DinÃ© / San Carlos Apache / Quechan) co-founded a restaurant business, Intertribal food routes. He sends Yazzie across the country, cooking Indigenous meals and hosting cooking demonstrations for Indigenous communities.
When we meet at the Quixotic Coffee near his home in the early afternoon of February, Yazzie wears a black t-shirt designed by an Indigenous artist from the West, emblazoned with âGood Medicine,â an expression of respect for the sustenance of nature. On his left forearm, a shiny tattoo combines the ingredients he used the first time he cooked at an intertribal food summit: cranberries, cedar, sumac, sunflower seeds, Aztec black corn, Bear corn. Island Flint and a cushaw squash, grown on his home reservation.
Not all famous chefs have ruled it out. Last winter, Yazzie filmed an episode of Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, a Hulu documentary series on immigrant and native American cuisines (to be released June 18). Lakshmi chose Yazzie, he says, for his tribal connections. The two met on a ranch in Arizona. Lighting the grill, Yazzie cooked antelope meat from a local hunter, as well as corn and beans from a native farm in the area.
“She wanted to know more about the cultural appropriation around her, more about the protocol,” he says of the Bravo TV host. “It wasn’t ego, like with a lot of celebrity chefs.”
Six years after the start of Yazzie’s career, Taste the nation marks his biggest, but not the first, foray into the screen. Last year, a film crew followed him to his childhood home to Alternative: Kitchen, a documentary series on Indigenous leaders. Twin Cities PBS brought the story to the Dream of Wild Health farm in Hugo, Minnesota. There in the summer, Yazzie mentors downtown native youth, showing them how to steam corn Navajo style (up to five hours underground, covered in envelopes and a blanket).
Beyond telling the truth to power on Twitter, Yazzie lets followers know where to order bison hearts, how to distinguish dandelion leaves from poison ivy. âBeing a chef is just the tip of the hat,â he says. âBelow, I have the impression of becoming a teacher. It’s not just about cooking; it’s connecting with the landscape, where the food comes from.
Last year, before a powwow in South Dakota, Yazzie prepared a buffet and answered questions from the local Indigenous community. His gaze is firm and sincere. Often he looks at you from under the brim of a black cap. He doesn’t seem the emotional type to you. But when a senior put his career in perspective for him, it drew a rare tear on the way home: âYou didn’t choose the kitchen,â she told him. âThe kitchen chose you. “
At age 7, Yazzie was at his home in Dennehotso, Arizona watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on TV when her mom came home from a double shift. In 30 minutes, chopped carrots and cooked spinach came out of the kitchen. It was a soup recipe from his own mother, a forager. Years later, Yazzie realized that the ingredients were indigenous, as were the wild onions, juniper berries, and rabbit meat in his grandmother’s other dishes.
In his early teens, Yazzie had fallen for a bad scene. He started selling drugs, was kicked out of school to school, detention center to detention center across Arizona. He was shot, literally stabbed in the back and put behind bars.
âMy sister would call me: ‘We miss your cooking. So I would come home for a day or two and cook some type of meal. But he couldn’t stay. “She had my nephews and nieces, and she was like, ‘Not only do you influence them, but you come home with alcohol on your breath, or you come home with weed in your pocket.'”
In her early twenties, Yazzie met her now fiancÃ©e, and Polk gave her an ultimatum: In 2013, they moved to Minnesota, where she has family, for a fresh start.
One day, a brochure arrived in the mail for the culinary program at Saint Paul College. Polk pushed Yazzie to apply.
During her first semester, instructors told students to find a niche. Maybe Japanese, Yazzie thought. Or from the South – so that he can cook outside.
Looking through his textbooks, however, he noticed something peculiar. France and Italy use tomatoes, corn, squash. China and the countries of the Middle East depend on the spices and peppers of South America. âI realized that not only did my ancestors long survive Manifest Destiny or colonization,â he says, âbut our ingredients too.
Along with this legacy, the historical trauma runs deep: cheap and poorly nutritious federal provisions. Commonly identified Native American foods (fried bread, Indian tacos) come from foreign staple foods donated to reservations: lard, sugar, and flour.
Intertribal Food Summits in the early 2010s fueled what has been called a resurgence of Indigenous cuisine. Dozens of chefs have started to come together – from the Southwest to the Great Lakes – to cook for hundreds, to teach food sovereignty and to raise awareness of the health issues in their communities due to poor nutrition, including the risk. higher in diabetes among racial groups and American models like Sherman have emerged, offering resources like The native cuisine of the Sioux chef recipe book.
In the year Intertribal Foodways launched, Yazzie says he had to turn down around 2,000 projects. âThe majority of tribal communities in the United States, Alaska and Canada are still in third world poverty,â he says. “They don’t have the funds to bring in a chef or a cook to do a demonstration or a presentation.” So he turned to YouTube as a free and easy way for anyone, anywhere to view his recipes.
When restaurants closed due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, Yazzie, like chefs around the world, did their best to pivot. He increased his production online. In April, he partnered with American Indian Health and Services to host cooking webinars.
He joined a five-person team at the Minnesota American Indian Center cafe in Minneapolis, preparing meals for Native Elders. They use donated ingredients, such as ancient corn for walleye tacos.
He helped organize a local effort to help seniors and families in his house reserve, one of the hardest hit areas. (Find the GoFundMe page here.) âIt’s really exhausting,â he says, of all the work. “But at the same time, it’s just my chosen path and lifestyle.”
Along the way, Yazzie’s profile continues to grow. enjoy your food The magazine recently asked him to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous populations. (âEnsuring access to food, medicine and water is especially important on reserves, where the nearest grocery store can be over an hour away,â he told them.)
Ahead of the pandemic, in early March, Yazzie contributed to a potluck hosted by 11 local stars at the Rosedale Center food hall: his wild rice pilaf sat among culturally diverse dishes by Iron chief winner Justin Sutherland, Pizza Chef Karma Raghavan Iyer and House of Gristle’s Jametta Raspberry.
There is still an active online presence. (In fact, the pandemic has made YouTube more relevant, and it has a podcast in the works for this summer.) Correcting misinformed whites is a thankless burden, but Yazzie has found a way to approach it with humor. The resurgence of Indigenous cooking has reminded some of a âfad,â although it has always been around, and there’s a ridiculous Venn diagram that overlaps Indigenous cuisine with recently popular diets. âI had a meme about it,â he says. In an Instagram post, âpaleo dietâ and âketo dietâ appear crossed out, and below: âIndigenous foodsâ.
âThere are over 560 tribes in the United States,â he says, âand at least three to five varieties of corn in each tribe. He navigates cultural appropriation himself by asking elders for permission to use ingredients, noting which ones are reserved for ceremonies.
After Taste the nation wrapped, he gave Lakshmi cornmeal from the Hopi tribe of Arizona. âWhen she asked how to prepare the cornmeal, I said to her, ‘If you are making it, just have that perspective of where it came from,’â he says. âIt’s not something you can buy from Walmart or Target. This is something that you have to buy directly from the tribe. Just have that perspective and that thinking in your kitchen, and you can add whatever you want to it. And when you post that on social media, just let people know where it’s coming from.