Award-winning Apache/Navajo Chef Nephi Craig, executive chef of the fine-dining restaurant at the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort Hotel and the former reigning champion of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association’s (AIGA) Chef’s Challenge, battled some tough competition in an effort to retain his top chef status at Desert Diamond Casino & Hotel in Tuscon, Arizona on November 7. Craig, founder of the Native American Culinary Association, an organization dedicated to the development of Native American cuisine, sliced and diced his best to defend his title at the EXPO AIGA 2013 "Cuisine Beyond Borders", but the coveted trophy went to another Indian country culinary master.
When the cooking flames had cooled and the judges’ palates had been slated, Ron Dimas, chef de cuisine of Orange Sky Restaurant at Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s Talking Stick Resort, took top honors with his Broken Arrow Ranch Venison Loin with a ragout of deer liver and heart, with roasted butternut squash puree and mesquite flour crepes.
While attendees at the Desert Diamond casino cook-off voted on their favorite dish as a “People’s Choice,” Top Chef recognition was decided by a panel of celebrity judges who critiqued plate presentation, creativity, originality and taste.
Judges included Houston Chronicle Food Editor Greg Morago (Gila River Indian Community); food and lifestyle writer Nora Burba Trulsson, and Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame member Donna Nordin, a James Beard nominee for Best Chef Southwest.
Competing chefs included Craig; Enrique Alcantar (Pascua Yaqui) of Casino Del Sol Resort; Pascual Rodriguez representing the Tohono O’odham’s Desert Diamond Casinos; Mat Ferrin, cooking for the San Carlos Apache Gold Casino Resort, and Hung Dinh, on behalf of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Casino.
“Cooking is all I’ve done for the past 20 years, creating menus that focus on naturally raised meats, environmentally responsible seafood, and locally grown produce,” Chef Dimas said. “I support the movement toward more traditional food preparation, thinking both historically and culturally, because I’m afraid of losing all that.
“Traditional cooking is so natural because it comes from the Earth. Trends are cyclical, like 15 years ago everything was about spa food, and ten years before that, everything centered around butter and cream. I think we’re headed back into another healthy food phase spurred by medical concerns. Whatever the reason, I welcome the direction we’re headed in.”
Nordin, a long-time food entrepreneur, said that judging a cooking competition involves several factors. “Color and style enter into it, but in the end, the deciding factor is flavor. I can forgo a little bit in the looks department, but if there’s lots in the way of looks, but little in the way of flavor, that doesn’t cut it for me. If your taste buds sing, you’ve got a winner.”
While Dimas won the judges’ hearts, Casino Del Sol chef Alcantar won the gustatory thanks and votes of the general public with the People’s Choice Award for his Braised Buffalo and White Tepary Bean Cassoulet.
“With a Native foods focus, I decided to go with lean and healthy buffalo short ribs and tepary beans that have been a diet staple for thousands of years—traditional foods cooked in contemporary style,” Alcantar said. What helped make his effort prize-winning was his Chef’s Surprise, an opera cake made with smokehouse almond flour and a ganache of 12-year-old whiskey.
Last year’s winner, Chef Craig, summed up the overall spirit of the Chef’s Challenge in this way: “Native peoples are emerging from the great interruption in Native food ways. Pre-contact, we were expert farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen and cooks. A re-emphasis on Native foods is not a trend—it’s a way to recover our communities.”