Spirit of the Harvest
Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie turns up the heat on his mission to redefine Indigenous cuisine, which has earned him the new role as executive chef at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Plus, a recipe for easy winter posole.
Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie. (Courtesy photo.)
Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie is a bit like a horse with blinders: He can see in only one direction, and that’s straight ahead in his mission to cook up traditional Native American foods—unique edibles that are culturally specific.
“Ten years ago, there was no true definition of Native cooking,” Bitsoie says. “Native food isn’t a single category because it equates to culture, and all Native cultures are different in [their] preference and preparation.”
For the last decade, Bitsoie has been trying to define those differences and he can now report progress. He says, “The concept of Native food reached new heights a few years back with a plethora of Native chefs promoting their regionally based offerings.”
The job isn’t finished yet, but Bitsoie’s mission to redefine Indigenous cuisine has earned him his latest challenge/opportunity: executive chef at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
“I’m on cloud nine, blown away by all of this, because this is a dream job. I’ll be the first Native American executive chef at this location,” he says. “When the call came in, I packed a bag, caught a flight, found a room to rent, and here I am, ready to start cooking in the traditional fashion.”
Museum Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) extended the welcome mat. “Freddie is at the center of the conversation defining Native American cuisine. As the new executive chef, he is the museum’s bridge between ancestral foods and contemporary cuisine. He’s traveled the world over, soaking up knowledge about Indigenous ingredients, so he’s exactly the kind of ambassador we want representing our restaurant.”
Utilizing Native cooking techniques has become fundamental for Bitsoie, because the basis of cooking at a cultural level involves technique. “Most techniques used today are French-based, like sautéing, while true Native cooking involves lots of other ways—dehydrating, smoking, steaming—and I’d like to introduce more of these traditional methods,” he says.
Bitsoie, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale (formerly the Scottsdale Culinary Institute), host of his Rezervations Not Required TV show, and owner of Native American cuisine consulting firm FJBits/Concepts, has been climbing the culinary ladder for years. He was named Best Native Chef in 2013 by the Smithsonian’s NMAI, which is perhaps what helped him land the new job to become part of the world’s largest museum complex and further the NMAI’s mission of “… serving the greater public as an honest and thoughtful conduit to Native cultures—past and present—in all their richness, depth, and diversity.”
They’ll get all of that and more in Bitsoie’s kitchen, where he is a firm believer that the past is prologue to the present which is the conduit to the future, in culinary tradition and in life itself.
Food, in all its aspects, is what life is about for the man who once intended to become an anthropologist. Fate intervened, however, when an archeology course led him down a side path focusing on food history. Ultimately, his studies about ancient Puebloan societies moved him away from cultural anthropology and into culinary creativity.
Bitsoie was born in a small Utah town in the Four Corners region, and his family frequently traveled to numerous places in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. “I’m a Southwestern boy because I love my red and green chiles and other traditional foodstuffs like acorns and cholla cactus buds. These ingredients are not only delicious, they’re also healthy, a beneficial byproduct of this way of cooking,” he says.
“The stereotype is that healthy cooking results in bland, boring, tasteless dishes, and when you put ‘healthy’ in front of ‘cooking,’ it can be a deterrent that scares some people away,” Bitsoie says.
But American palates are changing in measurable ways. “It’s happening a lot more now as people seek a better diet,” he says. “When you see things like a book titled The United States of Arugula, you know that consumers are acquiring a taste for things meant for discriminating palates. People are making smart changes in their food choices. Native foods are delicious, and when you add in the unintended health benefits, selling the concept gets easier.”
Although he delivers commentary about healthy cooking to health-conscious places like the Mayo Clinic and Kraft Foods, Bitsoie doesn’t refer to himself as a dietitian. “Using organic Native foods is beneficial on a number of levels,” like helping manage blood glucose levels, he says.
In his new capacity at the NMAI, Bitsoie has become the museum’s unofficial curator of food exhibits. He says, “I get to select 50 different menu items throughout the year, and I want to serve relevant regional dishes, [incorporating] influences from tribes throughout the U.S., as well as Canada and South and Central America. My whole mission over the last decade has been to help redefine Native cuisine, and these kinds of dishes in this kind of location can only help in this process.”
Bitsoie enjoys dealing with people as much as he loves working with food, so he should be a successful food guru for visitors to the NMAI. In the kitchen, he can create regional delicacies like Sonoran Three Sisters salad from Tohono O’odham country, with tepary beans, acorn squash, corn and cholla cactus buds, or a sweet Apache-inspired acorn soup with pecan mousse tart for dessert. Then he can go out and talk about it, using his friendly and approachable manner to introduce and educate people about the flavors and benefits of Indigenous recipes.
Working out of a kitchen the size of a small house and with 25 or more helpers to assist, it will be a team effort. “I may be the one who creates the dish, but the team will ensure its authenticity,” Bitsoie says, confident that the concept of regional Native American cooking is catching on.
“I’m only one little chef, but with an institution as big as the [Smithsonian], this can be a megaphone to help me shout out about our effort.”
Easy Winter Posole
- 3 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 pound pork butt, cut into medium-size dice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 medium onion, diced small
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 sprigs thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 3 Tbsp. paprika
- 3 Tbsp. chili powder
- 1 tsp. cumin
- 1 tsp. coriander
- 1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
- 28 oz. cooked hominy
- 32 oz. chicken stock
- Cilantro, chopped, for garnish
- Thyme, for garnish
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil. Sear the diced pork in the oil, adding salt and pepper to taste. Remove pork from pot when all sides are seared.
Add to pot the diced onion, minced garlic, thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Sweat the ingredients for about 7 minutes, or until onions are translucent.
Add the tomato paste, paprika, chile powder, cumin and coriander, and allow these ingredients to toast. Then add the diced tomatoes.
Add the seared pork back into the pot, along with the cooked hominy. Stir all ingredients together well, then add the chicken stock. Only add enough stock to just cover the ingredients.
Bring posole to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Allow to simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes as the liquid reduces and the posole develops a stew consistency. Adjust seasonings as desired.
To serve, ladle posole into bowls and garnish with cilantro and thyme.