By Eddie Chuculate
True to his adaptive nature and agility in the kitchen, chef Brian Yazzie has turned the lemons of the coronavirus pandemic into lemonade. Indigenous lemonade, that is.
Yazzie, originally from the northwestern Navajo Reservation town of Dennehotso, Ariz., was recently named new executive chef of the Gatherings Cafe at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Yazzie came to the Gatherings Cafe in March at the outset of the pandemic in an effort to generate some income for the cafe, which had been shut down due to the pandemic, and to feed elders in the Minneapolis Native American community, including residents at the Little Earth of United Tribes housing complex and at Bii Di Gain elderly Native housing.
Yazzie was in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, where his catering business, Intertribal Foodways, was shut down due to the pandemic. Holder of a culinary arts degree from St. Paul College, he had been traveling the United States and abroad teaching about Indigenous food and conducting cooking instructionals.
Yazzie had formed Intertribal Foodways and began traveling extensively across the U.S., to other reservations and Copenhagen, Denmark, Italy and Japan. He’d cater, conduct pop-up and private dinners, and stage food demonstrations.
In America he visited different pueblos and reservations. “I realized that some of the reservations, foodwise, are on a third-world poverty status,” Yazzie said. “I’ve been trying to connect with them and teach more healthy, Indigenous menus and techniques.”
Yazzie also started his own YouTube channel, Yazzie the Chef, where he shares his travels, food demos and presentations, and easy-to-make nutritious recipes, staying away from the European standards of pork, beef and chicken.
He plans to expand the show to include one-on-one conversations with Native guests including athletes, writers, politicians and authorities on wellness and nutrition.
But with traveling restrictions in effect due to the virus, a homebound Yazzie found himself itching for something to do related to cooking, and spreading the benefits of his passion: Native American cuisine based on regional game, plants and fruits and berries.
“He was looking for ways to help out the center and help out elders any way he could,” said Minneapolis American Indian Center director Mary LaGarde, who had been made aware of the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s $15,000 grants.
By midweek the staff at Gatherings Café, along with volunteers including Yazzie, ramped up full-time daily production, assembling 100 daily meals for lunchtime delivery to elders Monday through Friday. They also give seniors word puzzles and sanitizing spray.
Yazzie also tapped into his chef connections to get donations, resulting in a load of potato hash from the Idaho Potato Commission. He also recruited volunteer Vanessa Casillas (Ho-Chunk/Chicana) for baking and desserts.
During this time, the current Gatherings Cafe chef had notified LaGarde that he intended to leave late this summer. LaGarde didn’t have to search far for a replacement, as she had a qualified, experienced chef right under her nose in Yazzie.
LaGarde praised Yazzie’s effect on the Native community, “His incorporation of Indigenous foods are in line with the cafe’s model of promoting health and wellness within our Native community,” LaGarde said in a statement.
“Chef Yazzie continues to provide meals to the elders in the community with plans to reopen and rebrand the Gatherings Cafe when the Center opens to the public.”
Not a bad career advancement for a cook, who when he first arrived in Minnesota, was offered a plate of wild rice and walleye at a powwow at MAIC.
“I didn’t know what they were,” said Yazzie, laughing. “I had to ask, what is wild rice, what is walleye?”
Now Yazzie regularly incorporates those ingredients into his dishes, along with cranberries, cherries, bison, rabbit, wild onions, fresh-tapped maple syrup, pheasant, duck, wild turkey, elk, deer, antelope and his favorite wild rice from Nett Lake and Spirit Lake.
Given the opportunity, he likes to cook with Indigenous ingredients from his native Southwest like small game such as rabbits, and lamb and mutton, corn, squash and chiles.
He’s excited to take over operations at the Gatherings Cafe. “I’m blessed to be able to take on the responsibility of one of the only cafes in the Twin Cities to focus on Indigenous Food,” he said. “I’ve been traveling constantly the last five years so this opportunity to settle down in one establishment, creating menus, is a blessing and an opportunity.
There’ll be both a name change and wholesale menu transition at Gatherings Cafe, located at the Minneapolis American Indian Center at 1530 E. Franklin Av., Yazzie and LaGarde said.
The name change will be revealed within the next month or so, with a grand re-opening in January. The menu will be fluid, changing with the climate.
“The concept will be in line with the four seasons, changing with what proteins and produce are available that month or so,” Yazzie said. “It won’t be concrete. We’ll be bringing in fresh foods focused on the Indigenous food culture of the Americas going back hundreds of years using ancestral knowledge, and cooking in moderation with ancestral ingredients.”
Yazzie plans to continue a partnership with Dream of Wild Health, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis with a farm in Hugo, Minnesota, that promotes restoring “health and well-being in the Native community by recovering knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways.”
The cafe also partners with Twin Cities Food Justice, Amish Food Farm, Frontera Farmer Foundation and the DragSmith Farms in Barron, Wis.
“Besides local farms we try to do foraging ourselves,” Yazzie said. “In June we went out and gathered some wild onions, which we were able to use, then process and preserve. We work with a couple foragers, people who drop off juneberries, dehydrated cranberries and ground cherries. Local family and friends oftentimes are able to provide fresh ingredients for the faculty here.”
The staff is planning regular pop-up menus, available for curbside pickup during the pandemic.
The first, “Indigenous Barbecue Night,” was held on the last Friday of September and featured mesquite smoked pulled bison with wojapi honey sauce and sides of smashed sweet potato or grilled squash wedges; wild rice and cranberry salad of seasonal greens drizzled with toasted walnuts and a sage-balsamic vinaigrette; blue cornbread sweetened with agave; melon seed chia parfait for dessert or grilled peaches with mint sunflower cream and maple sugar dust.
The limited meal kit offerings, $65 for a family of four or $110 for eight, sold out before the Friday pickup date.
Sept. 22’s regular menu for elders was wild rice pilaf with cauliflower and herb cream; blue corn hominy, turkey, and cubed fresh watermelon with puffed amaranth.
On Sept. 18 Yazzie and team served New Mexico green chile posole with blue corn and rabbit; house salad with watermelon vinaigrette; and fresh fruit parfaits.
Contact Gatherings Cafe at 612-879-1753. Yazzie is available at Yazzie the Chef, www.yazziethechef.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.