Native American and indigenous chefs finding their own recipes

Written by Staff Writer

Over the last decade, indigenous culture has become a more prominent part of U.S. culture and, increasingly, is being celebrated by mainstream pop culture. American rapper and multi-million-selling music artist Kendrick Lamar is one of the best-known examples; in 2015, he released an album called “DAMN.” that not only explored his own African-American heritage, but also included more raps about the state of indigenous people in the United States.

In a similar vein, this year, the acclaimed annual “Native Food & Drink” conference was held in Nashville for the first time, with more than 800 speakers across multiple panels looking at indigenous traditions and their use in contemporary cuisine.

Diana Zabata Photo courtesy of Diana Zabata

Now, more Native American and indigenous chefs are putting their own stamp on the culinary establishment.

“When you look at the chefs emerging right now in the States, most of them have been cooking before they went on to culinary school,” says Tim Dilley, an award-winning chef, author and co-founder of Philadelphia-based Indigenous America, a book about the region’s culinary history and latest food trends.

In these states, he says, “Native American and indigenous peoples are underrepresented in major cooking schools like The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, but that’s rapidly changing.”

According to his research, between 2005 and 2010 the amount of courses taught on Native American food had increased by 7,000%.

These chefs take pride in connecting with the land, and often speak about how they are re-imagining indigenous cultures for modern times.

“When we started to talk about ingredients, we started looking at things like squash. People ask us, ‘What are you doing with squash?’ And most of us think about red potatoes — and I think that’s a misnomer. A more interesting way to look at it is in terms of squash,” says Diana Zabata, a Dinebake founder and widely known culinary innovator.

“The Native American tradition had been around for years with potato. The theory was that you can make the potato taste like any other squash, but the part that makes the potato different is that it’s starch. Native Americans put it on cornmeal — the starch made it taste really different, and we’re so grateful to Native Americans for that.”

For Zabata, preserving and sharing ancestral wisdom is at the heart of the restaurant.

“We’re foodies, we’re not just chefs, and we want to be connected to our roots. We’re not trying to assimilate our culture into your pantry — it’s interesting to get back to the basics. We want to bridge that gap so that we can teach younger generations, and this gives us that opportunity. We want to make sure our heritage stays there.”

The Wipeout Restaurant

The Wipeout — or “Broke Black” — was founded by Bobby Bland, a singer, songwriter and voice actor. The Wipeout offers sit-down meals with local foods and a wide-ranging menu and features an awning designed by Bland’s daughter.

“When I finished a concert that night, I had this idea to do a restaurant. I wasn’t one of those old souls that just sat back and pondered the world,” Bland says.

“I got a record deal, bought a bunch of crappy tools and went out to build. I wanted it to be earthy, traditional and authentic. I wanted it to have a sense of place, as well as art, and a female artistic presence.”

He is now hoping to expand the restaurant by opening a coffee shop on Georgia Avenue. “We’re even thinking about an African-American version, where we have coffee and soul food for our own community,” he says.

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