An honor like this is akin to standing on the Olympic medal platform and being recognized among the best-of-the-best—at the top of your game.
The Fry Bread House in Phoenix, Arizona, is one of five recipients of a 2012 James Beard Foundation “America’s Classics” Award, the highest honor for food and beverage professionals anywhere in North America. Not too bad for restaurant owner Cecelia Miller of the Tohono O’odham Nation who for 20 years has been using the same fry bread recipe and techniques she learned as a child.
The family recipe that today serves long lines of hungry diners has been the top menu item since Miller began hand-stretching and deep-frying dough at her initial Fry Bread House, opened out of necessity to help pay for the education of the family’s five boys and two girls. The brothers showed up to make it a family project, patching up drywall and applying a coat a paint. “There were just three items on that original menu and she made $50 on opening day,” says daughter Sandra Miller.
Chef Miller, her son and manager Michael Perry, and an all-Native staff now prepare and present their offerings from an innocuous building marked simply by a sign indicating “Native American Food.” Befitting her background, a smaller sign inside notes: “Tohono O’odham Owned and Operated.”
Celebrating “25 Years of Food at Its Best,” the prestigious Beard honor is high praise indeed. And a lot of palates have to be pleased before a Beard Foundation award is forthcoming. A 17-member Restaurant and Chef Award Committee made up of industry professionals and food journalists chooses America’s Classics winners and the Fry Bread House was lauded for its “blissfully delicious specialty,” “timeless appeal,” and “quality food that reflects the character of the community.”
“Our Foundation’s mission is to celebrate, nurture and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage,” Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, said in an email to Indian Country Today Media Network. “We encourage more chefs who are keeping Native-American cuisine at the forefront of their menu, to reach out to us.”
Modest about the acknowledgment of her hard work, soft-spoken Cecelia Miller says: “I’d never heard of the James Beard Award. There are all kinds of scams going on and I was busy, so I just put it aside the notification until I saw the story on the front page of the Arizona Republic newspaper. The reporter told me: ‘This is a big deal. It’s like the Oscar of the Culinary Arts.’” (It’s also the first time a James Beard award has been given to Native American-owned restaurant.)
Publicity surrounding the award has resulted in lots of new faces coming through the front door. “It’s always busy any day at lunchtime, but since the award was announced, it’s just been crazy,” says son Nathan Perry.
Whether covered with meats, beans and chilies, or topped with honey and powdered sugar, the delicious debauchery has been driving droves to its location near Indian School Road since the doors opened in 1992. Diners don’t just come here to quietly eat and enjoy. The Republic newspaper noted: “This isn’t where you’d come in search of green, leafy nutrition. It is, however, where you’d come to make happy grunting noises while you eat.”
Descriptions of the edible offerings are varied, but a central theme revolves around enjoyment of the hand-made products coming out of the very tiny kitchen. “A wisp of pillowy flat bread the size of a Frisbee,” said one diner. “Chewy and flaky fry bread the size of an LP record,” said another, while a third described the plate contents as, “Downy bronze cushions the size of a dinner plate.”
Calorie-counters are advised to leave their conscience at the door. Fry bread tacos built on a base of chumuth or deep-fried tortilla can be assembled in a variety of ways that all include refried beans, cheese and lettuce. From that point, the customer chooses to add either mild green or spicy red chili beef. Seasoned ground beef is another layer, as is chorizo, a spicy sausage that awaits a topping of also-spicy chili strips and a dollop of cooling sour cream. Other fry bread favorites range from a simple large circle of the bread itself to more exotic additions as desired.
And while the taco form of frybread is the most requested menu item, many regulars ask for something called “The Joedd Special” described as a plain frybread with a bowl of stew that “will warm your tummy and nourish your soul.” Choose from red or green chili stew or hominy, vegetable beef, or menudo (beef tripe) with the chef’s promise that “all are cooked slowly and perfectly.”
If you’re more comfortable wrapping your hands around a large burro instead of a large taco, the Miller menu has those too from a plain chumuth with melted butter to the Colossal and/or Build-Your-Own Burros.
Finally, nobody gets out the door without fry bread in some form as the house sweets are all open-faced versions that will make any palate salivate—butter/cinnamon/sugar; butter/powdered sugar; butter/chocolate; butter/jam, or smeared totally with golden honey.
Ironically, the popular eatery is next to a psychic who predicts customers will like the red chili beef taco. There’s Indian jewelry outside, Indian tacos inside, limited seating, limited parking, and a specialized menu. Diners are a diverse lot ranging from former Arizona governors and state politicians to the folks next door. “All ages, all ethnicities, all socioeconomic levels—anyone and everyone from all walks of life,” the restaurant owner says.
Alison Cook, who nominated the Fry Bread House for its honor, noted: “The faithful clientele is wonderfully democratic, from Tohono O’dham friends of the house to hipsters and businessmen and the ever-present lucky traveler.”
And while Mrs. Miler is known for her food, she should also be lauded for her treatment of employees, many of whom have been with her for years. Priscilla Nahee, Pima/Hopi; Deborah Massey, Cocopah CRIT; Theresa Charley, Navajo; Lori Susunkewa, Hopi, and Steven Velasco, Tohono O’odham are just a few of the all-native crew.
Miller likes to tell the story of Virginia Hughes, an Akimel O’odham, who recently retired after 15 years. “She was about 50 and had never worked before…just walked in one day looking for her first job off the reservation. She knew how to cook but unless you’re a five-star chef, this business never pays a lot of money. It’s a training ground to learn how to work and take direction. I tell employees they can start here and I’ll give them the basic skills for success—like a work ethic—but I want them to go on and better themselves,” she says.
“Mom recognized early that if you better your employees, you’ll have better employees,” says daughter Sandra. “She encouraged her staff over the years to go to school and get their GED and established a policy at the restaurant—if you don’t have your GED, you can’t work here.”
Mrs. Miller will share in local honors at the 10th annual Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner during the Scottsdale Culinary Festival on April 18 with a menu that features a signature dish of previous award-winning chefs.
The official 2012 awards will be presented at a dinner to take place on May 7 at Lincoln Center in New York City, an event that has become a social and gastronomic highlight where winners are feted. “Every year, the presentation of our five Classics Awards are favorite moments at the ceremony,” said Ungaro in a news release announcing the winners. “Attendees love meeting the winners and hearing their stories because they represent the diverse heritage, heart and community of our country’s national cuisine. James Beard would have loved visiting them all.”
As part of her soft-spoken demeanor, Cecelia Miller is pleased but nonplused about the honors ceremony in the Big Apple. “I was in New York once before and the impression I got was that it was a big, busy place with lots of people always rushing here and there. Maybe this time I can slow down and see some of the tourist attractions.”
Read more about the awards at blog.jamesbeard.org.