Food & Cooking

How this Navajo chef reclaimed his food culture and is passing it on

Tatum Black feels both excited and nervous. On Oct. 15, she and a couple other culinary students from Monument Valley High School plan to take a four and a half hour bus ride from Kayenta, located in the northeast corner of Arizona, down to Phoenix to cook at a fundraiser.

The students are involved with Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, a national nonprofit also known as C-CAP. The program helps underserved middle and high school students develop skills for the culinary workforce.

Under the guidance of chef Justin Pioche, they’ll prepare hundreds of dishes for the event. Black said she’s never cooked for an event of this size, nor has she ever made the kind of dishes Pioche will be guiding them through — modern interpretations of Navajo foods, she described.

“These kids might have way more talent than I have,” Pioche said. “I hope to just bring that out of them, so they can do stuff too. Some kids need a bit of a boost.”

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Pioche, a C-CAP Arizona mentor, remembers when he was about their age, growing up in his hometown of Farmington, New Mexico. He watched cooking shows and dabbled in catering. Later he attended culinary school in Phoenix and cut his teeth under some of the top chefs in the Valley’s fine dining scene.

Since then, he’s moved back to New Mexico, where he hosts dinner parties serving Navajo food and runs his own company, Pioche Food Group, with his sister.

This year, he’s returning to his old Phoenix stomping grounds to share what he’s learned on his culinary journey with Indigenous high schoolers, like Black.

From aspiring rock star to fine dining chef

Pioche and his family lived in Phoenix when he was a child while his parents attended school. They were “dirt poor” back then and Taco Bell was a staple, he said.

When they moved back to Farmington, learning to cook began as a necessity for him. Both his parents worked, so when he came home from school, he would make simple meals like macaroni and cheese for his younger siblings.

After high school Pioche worked as a line cook. When his parents noticed his interest in cookbooks and cooking shows, they supported his decision to attend culinary school in Albuquerque. But after attending classes a couple hours a week, he dropped out to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star with his grindcore band, April O’Neal, named after a character from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

At the time, he says he was bored learning from books and bored with food in general in his “meats and potatoes kind of town” — though in retrospect, Pioche believes there are opportunities anywhere, and he just wasn’t making the most of them yet.

One day his mother sat him down and asked him if playing with his band was going to pay the bills. Her message stung and wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but he later realized, while broke and playing gigs on the road, that maybe she was right.

After visiting a few schools in Arizona, he decided on the Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale. That’s where Pioche says he got serious about cooking and making a living in the kitchen.

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Over the next decade, he honed his skills at fine dining establishments — cooking elaborate breakfasts for banquets at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley and preparing fresh fish at Binkley’s in Phoenix. A lesson he learned from chef Kevin Binkley that still resonates with him today is that everything on the plate should serve a purpose, and not just be there for aesthetics.

Returning home with a new perspective

Navajo and Indigenous food culture weren’t at the front of Pioche’s mind until around five years ago when he left Phoenix and moved toUpper Fruitland, or Doolkai in Navajo, to be closer to his family. The unincorporated community is a historically Navajo territory in northwestern New Mexico, just west of Farmington and bordering the Navajo Nation. 

There, he began diving into the history of Indigenous food practices, from regenerative farming to traditional cooking methods.

“What I did know of Navajo food was more post-colonial. I know that’s a big conversation right now, but I think it’s important,” Pioche said. “Growing up that way, we all thought fry bread and burgers on fry bread and even Navajo tacos — I hate that term — we thought that was traditional Navajo foods.”

“Later on, as I got older and had done more research, I learned that is not traditional Navajo food whatsoever. It’s what we learned to create during the Long Walk. It’s a really sad story, the story of fry bread.”

In 2019 Pioche started hosting a supper club event called LorAmy, a name drawn from Navajo culture.

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Traditionally, when Diné introduce themselves and their four clans, they start with mother’s clan first, then father’s clan. Lorene is his mother’s mother’s name and Amy is his father’s mother’s name, said Pioche. He introduces himself as Ashihii Diné who is born for the Bit’ahnii people, or Salt Clan Navajo born for Folded Arms people.

When people say the name of the supper club, LorAmy, they are being introduced to his family and where he comes from, he explained.

Modern takes on traditional foods

LorAmy serves nine courses of Navajo food with creative accents. He usually starts events with Navajo tea, a beverage brewed from dried greenthread, offered in different formats, from a frozen cloud that melts in the mouth to an ice cream similar to Dippin’ Dots.

A second course might be steamed corn stew, featuring white corn and lamb backbone. The flavor base is diced vegetables. While reminiscent of French-style mirepoix, it’s actually a practice he adapted from an elder, rather than from culinary school. He associates the comforting dish with family gatherings during the holidays and birthday parties.

One signature dish is his Textures of Squash, featuring squash cooked in different ways:  roasted pucks with maple syrup, a savory purée, pickled and raw slivers, roasted seeds, a marinade from the guts and even the ashes from a whole roasted squash, pulverized with salt and then used as a seasoning.

Other gourd dishes include charred baby zucchinis topped with marinated zucchini flowers.

“Squash is really, really important to Navajo people,” Pioche said. “That’s why I want to highlight it and show it in a different way. Show squash isn’t just boiled and put into stew with potatoes. It’s a pretty beautiful dish.”

Much of what Pioche has learned about Native foodways came from his experiences over the past year working as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at Navajo Ethno Agriculture, a farm in Nenahnezad, New Mexico.

Pioche said learning the process of putting seeds into the ground, watering, wedding and harvesting has kept him grounded. He realized he used to take food for granted and that so much of food is not just about cooking it — it’s political, from land rights to sustainable farming practices, he said.

“I get a lot of backlash because I think people don’t want to hear it, but there’s a lot of land on Navajo Nation that is not being utilized or is being underutilized. And we can’t call ourselves a sovereign nation if we can’t even feed our own people.”

Read more:Why this Diné chef is opening a fry bread restaurant in downtown Mesa

Challenging the next generation of Indigenous cooks and farmers

One of Pioche’s mentors, Navajo ethnobotanist Arnold Clifford, taught him that when a person accumulates so much knowledge, it’s their duty to pass that on. By passing on knowledge, it also frees up the brain to absorb more knowledge, he explained.

In 2020 Pioche and his sister Tia replaced his catering business Piocheś with Pioche Food Group. The former company was based on his last name, but pronounced with a French accent. “This was me not trying to be something else,” Pioche said about the change.

Pioche Food Group is now more than a catering company, it’s also an educational effort. Pioche said that when he talks to students from Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, he emphasizes the importance of farming and retaining their culture.

“In Navajo, it’s more about take what you need, and leave the rest for someone else,” Pioche said. “Whether it be animals or somebody else who needs food as well. It’s more about respect for the land, respect for ourselves and the people.”

Most people his age or younger aren’t interested in a career in agriculture, but for his people, it’s “in the DNA,” Pioche said. He hopes he can inspire at least one student to go into farming after high school.

The other aspect of teaching is making sure teenagers have the capability to cook for themselves when they leave home so they don’t have to rely on microwaving frozen foods.

This fall he’s helping culinary students from Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, Arizona, prepare dishes for the C-CAP Harvest Moon Fundraiser, scheduled for Oct. 16 at Tarbell’s restaurant in Phoenix.

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Luanne Bradley, the students’ culinary instructor, said the pandemic has made hands-on learning difficult. Last year the C-CAP Arizona fundraiser was cancelled and students had to learn virtually at home. This year, COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented Pioche from visiting until the week before the event, she said.

She’s excited that the students were cleared this month to travel to Phoenix, where they will prepare and serve hundreds of small dishes. Other schools participating in the C-CAP Arizona fundraiser are based in metro Phoenix, she said.

Pioche said as of now, the Kayenta students’ menu will likely consist of Navajo tea and two dishes. One is a blue corn cake with cedar ash aioli, fried lamb leg, popcorn and bulls blood beet microgreens. The other is an amaranth seed porridge with tepary beans, amaranth chips and pickled melon rinds.

Black said she’s helped make blue corn mush and mutton stew at home, but it was “cool” to make these upscale versions of traditional foods. She joined Bradley’s class because she wanted to learn new recipes and how to cook on her own.

“I’m glad I’m learning these skills because I wouldn’t be stuck just eating sandwiches and canned food,” Black said. “I’m not relying on that, I’m learning how to cook myself.”

Bradley hopes that if her students want to make a career out of cooking, the C-CAP experience will help them take their ambitions beyond the run-of-the-mill chain restaurants. There’s more opportunities in Native food than just fry bread, she said.

She recalled traveling once to a professional development event where she was tasked with making sopapillas because people there assumed it was similar to making fry bread. She doesn’t want to see Native people underestimated like that.

“To see Justin (Pioche) rise and make the creative decisions he has,” she said. “That is the greatest feeling to have my students mentored by another Diné.”

Details: Pioche Food Group, facebook.com/piochefoodgroup; Navajo Ethno Agriculture, facebook.com/navajofarming; C-CAP Arizona, ccapaz.org.

Reach the reporter at Priscilla.Totiya@azcentral.com. Follow @priscillatotiya on Twitter and Instagram.

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