MOENKOPI, AZ - 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
"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
"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.