: People

Cooking good feelings

Diné chef brings Native dishes to annual Heard Museum feasts

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, March 31, 2011

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(Courtesy photo)

Freddie Bitsoie, owner of FJBits Concepts and Design in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a chef and consultant of Native foods.

Thanksgiving might be eight months away but the menu for the Heard Museum's Harvest Feast is already being discussed and, for the second year in a row, a Navajo chef has the lead role in creating it.

"It's looking pretty good," said Freddie Bitsoie, owner of FJBits Concepts and Design of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Kate Crowley, the Heard's public relations manager, said the museum wanted a chef who understands Native American cultures and their foods. The museum had known about Bitsoie and his talents for a few years, since he is active in the Phoenix area.

"He was our top choice. He is Native American and has an anthropological background," she said.

Bitsoie, 35, is Tábaahá (Edge Water Clan), born for Nát'oh Dine'é (Tobacco Clan).

Last year the feast included roast turkey and the usual side dishes, but also offered four other menus inspired by Native cultures in the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest.

From the Northeast came mashed acorn squash with pumpkin.

"That was delicious," Crowley recalled. "The place smelled absolutely phenomenal. Absolutely wonderful."

Bitsoie produced braised bison with sage mashed potatoes from the northern Plains, pumpkin soup with crème fraiche flavored by sage from the Northwest, and Chitimacha baked duck with chokecherry sauce from the Southeast, to name a few.

Now he's in the process of deciding which way to go with this year's menu, whether the dishes should be regionally derived or perhaps based in language groups.

Either way, the reason for the meal will be the same: "It's for people to come and enjoy a meal," Bitsoie said.

There's a bond between the person making the food and the ones eating it, as he sees it.

"Food is the only industry that people pay other people and trust them because, 'Whatever I'm buying, I'm eating it. I'm going to put whatever they give me in my mouth,'" he said.

He treats the food with care as he prepares it, though he admits the atmosphere in the kitchen can get tense at times as people work elbow-to-elbow at top speed. Sometimes he even plays music to help lighten the mood of the kitchen.

Bitsoie said he'd throw out a dish if it were made without good feelings.

"I'm a big believer in feeling good, and that everyone in the kitchen is 100 percent stress free and happy," he said. "It's the energy that goes into the food.

"People might be arguing (during a meal) but at least they're enjoying the food," he joked.

Bitsoie, who has roots in Tees Nos Pos Chapter and claims Gallup as his hometown, didn't start out to become a food expert. He sort of gravitated towards it while studying anthropology and archaeology at the University of New Mexico.

During an archaeology course he became fascinated with what the people from Chaco Canyon ate, and said there's evidence that the Chacoans ate dried fish despite being a desert culture.

Eventually, Bitsoie decided to shift his focus and enrolled at Scottsdale Culinary Institute, emerging as a chef in 2007. In combination with his understanding of the role food played in pre-Columbian America, he expanded into teaching and consulting.

Running a busy consulting firm doesn't leave him much time to do actual cooking, he noted, but he teaches and lectures widely on the history of Native foods.

He does both with a sense of purpose.

"In my utopian world, when people say Native American food, I would like people's responses to be, 'What region?' or 'What tribe?'" he said.

He'd like people to distinguish Native American foods the way people do with regional differences in European foods.

Bitsoie said his cooking classes are designed to make good food accessible to people who don't have a lot of money to spend on high-end cookware and ingredients.

Too often the food shows on television make people feel like "they have to spend money to cook," he noted.

He's also heard some chefs say you shouldn't eat (USDA Food Distribution Programs) commodity foods, which he says makes people who depend on commodity foods feel embarrassed.

"I'm not saying its OK to eat unhealthy, I'm saying use what you have but cook it healthier," Bitsoie said.

Information: www.fjbits.com.

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