Organizers of the first Thunder Chef Native cook-off on May 3 promised that their Iron Chef-style event would not be the last. Some 500 attendees at the Pueblo of Pojoaque’s Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino near Santa Fe, New Mexico enjoyed gourmet cuisine prepared by three distinguished chefs, demonstrations from two dance groups, and the raffle of a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
The event was a fundraiser for the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dancers, who performed at the event. The group has been invited to an international dance festival in France in July. They hope to send 13 dancers aged 6 to 17 to the festival, where they will perform the dances they began learning in summer of 2013.
Three chefs each created a three-course meal for a panel of eight judges. Each course featured buffalo hunted by the chefs in early April, prepared in the style of their native cultures. Later that month, the chefs chose their cuts and prepared their menus. The judges, Albuquerque television meteorologist Steve Stucker, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales,Santa Fe City Councilor Peter Ives and some hospitality and advertising personalities critiqued each course as the other attendees sampled tasting portions.
Ka’ainoa Ravey, Chef de Cuisine at Red Sage, the fine dining restaurant at Buffalo Thunder, took both the judges’ first place award and the People’s Choice honors. A native Hawaiian, Ravey’s food has been described as a little Hawaiian, a little New Mexican, with an American attitude and an Asian twist.
He served hemp seed-crusted buffalo tenderloin and Hawaiian butter fish over arugula greens as an appetizer, then buffalo skirt and sirloin strips in a Korean-style bulgogi marinade with octopus kimchi salad as his main dish. For dessert, he presented buffalo bone marrow ice cream with crème brule topped with buffalo blood seeped cherries.
Second place winner Ahmed Obo, chef and owner of Santa Fe’s Jambo Café, hails from Lamu Island off the coast of Kenya. His dishes combine European, Arabic and Indian influences. Obo, who presented his dishes to the judges first, cooked miniature buffalo sausage meatballs in a creamy soup of dried fruit and sweet potato.
His entrée featured braised buffalo short ribs seasoned with Ethiopian berbere spice over fufu, a traditional African dish made of cassava and plantains. Obo’s dessert paid homage to the fundraising theme of the afternoon by combining ground buffalo meat, spices and dried fruit in a phyllo dough purse topped with coconut sauce.
The third chef, Freddie Bitsoie (Dine), prepared nopales and ground buffalo posole as his starter. For his main course, Bitsoie served a sumac-rubbed buffalo loin with stewed bean ragout, and sautéed chayote squash and nopales strips. His dessert featured a buffalo, mascarpone and prickly pear mouse in a pastry shell drizzled with fresh raspberry sauce.
Bitsoie appreciated the opportunity to highlight native and indigenous ingredients. “I’m used to cooking buffalo. It’s a Native thing. But I’d never seen the animal slaughtered before. I felt closer to it and wanted to use all of it. And to work with the other two native chefs is special.”
Bitsoie was on an episode of the PBS cooking series Lidia’s Italy in America, and is featured on the series Rezervations Not Required. This show, under development by Sleeping Lady/Waking Giants Productions, includes Native celebrity guests on location, and is part cooking show, part travel and culture show. Each episode focuses on a unique cuisine and culture of tribal reserves and reservations around the world.
The winning chef received $2000 cash, a buffalo robe presented to him by Pueblo of Pojoaque Governor George Rivera, and a vacation package from Hilton Hotels. Second place received $1000, and third took home $500. The resort also donated $2000 to Chef Obo’s Jambo Kids Foundation, which improves both the health and education for the citizens of Lamu Island, Obo’s birthplace.
“All the food was really good,” said Brandon Cata, a Tewa language instructor from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. Cata lead the opening prayer for the event. “I really liked the short ribs from Chef Ahmet. I could eat those every day.”
Under the instruction of six-time world champion hoop dancer Nakotah LaRance (Hopi/Assiniboine/Tewa), and accompanied by his father, singer and drummer Steve LaRance (Hopi/Assiniboine), the dancers have thrived in their purpose: to give the kids a sense of community and pride in who they are as Pueblo members, and to bring the community together behind their efforts.
Nakotah LaRance also performed, demonstrating why he has garnered international attention for his skills. Another pueblo youth dance group, New Tribe, performed their urban hip-hop street dance moves as well.