Renetto-Mario Etsitty Tertio 3508 N. 7th Street www.tertiowinebar.com
This is part one of our interview with Renetto-Mario Etsitty, chef at Tertio Wine Bar in Phoenix. Today, he dishes on the history of Navajo Kneel Down bread and the semi-secret First Friday feasts he's been serving for the past five years. Don't forget to come back Tuesday for part two when he tells us his favorite place for late-night dining and where you can view his art (that's right, he's also an artist with a fine arts degree from ASU), right now.
Last week, Etsitty prepared a special menu for a not-so-run-of-the-mill wine dinner at Tertio, the boozy, after-hours persona of the Seventh Street coffee shop Urban Beans. The day before the event, he wasn't crafting handmade pasta or charcuterie -- instead, you could have found him delicately folding spoonfuls of ground corn into fresh green corn husks. Each green bundle was placed into the oven to become Kneel Down Corn Bread, a Navajo version of a fresh corn tamale. When we stopped in, the smell of sweet roasted corn seeped from the husks as he peeled one open to reveal a golden brown bread. In this case, it would be served hot and fresh with dinner, but Etsitty explained that it could also be preserved though the winter and eaten, once it hardened, with coffee -- similar to Italian biscotti.
The name, Etsitty explains, references how Navajo women used to have to kneel down to grind the corn on a metate, or meal stone, and to the fact that the artfully folded corn husks resemble kneeling dolls. It's not a dish he learned to cook from a book, or in culinary school or class, but from his family while he was growing up on a Navajo reservation in northwest Arizona.
If you are lucky enough to get Etsitty talking -- he's a pretty soft-spoken guy -- about Navajo cuisine, know that you're in for quite a history lesson. The best part about it, though, is that he's not preaching about days gone by. This guy has plenty of stories to share from his childhood that help outsiders understand the importance of and relationship with food in his culture.
For example, he might tell you about gathering corn, squash, and tumbleweeds to eat. All "locally" grown, because they grew on his family's farm or came directly from nature. He might also tell you about hunting and slaughtering his own meat. To him, the Slow Food Movement isn't so much "slow," but the ways things should always be.
"A lot of these things are coming back," he say. "But that's just how I grew up."
Growing up in a single-parent household meant helping out with the cooking and other chores. It's how, Etsitty says, he began to feel his way around the kitchen. As he grew older, he went from helping out his mother and grandmother, who owned a chuck wagon, to lending a hand with large family get-togethers. The need to be both independent and able to help others taught him at an early age about the connections between food, community, and happiness -- and those concepts still drive him today.
You might have have heard rumors about the First Friday feasts he prepares every month for local artists and creative types to enjoy, at no cost, at his own house. It's a pretty remarkable feat, to feed a crowd of strangers every month for free. But Etsitty explains that doing so is a matter of habit for him. He says our lives are meant to be happy and that "through food we step into that realm."
The dinners started in December 2008 when he decided to throw himself a housewarming party and the next month he found himself hosting a New Year's Ever get-together -- from that point on, the monthly dinners became a regular thing. They're open-invitation (if you know where to go) and usually feature raw or vegan food, since Etistty says many of his friends eat that way. Oh, and they usually don't take place until the wee hours of the morning, as in 2 or 3 a.m.
The communal, social aspects of the dinner are his way of sharing the ideals of generosity, reverence, and respect for others and for food.
"The more people experience the foods and values I grew up with, maybe they will take them with them," he says.
Before coming to Terio, Etsitty worked at the Phoenix Public Market as a sous/specialty chef. When the market closed last spring, it didn't take long for him to land, quietly, at Nachobot on Roosevelt Row. Under Etsitty, Nachobot was transformed into Rezbot, a late-night Native American cuisine restaurant but that gig ended this spring when owner John Sagasta decided to change the spot into an ice cream shop.
At Tertio, Etsitty's working under Urban Beans/Tertio owner Virgina Senior, helping to build a unique identity for the new-ish venture Senior kicked off earlier this year. The restaurant switches from coffee shop to wine bar at 4 p.m. -- though you can a still come in for a late-night latte. And they've recently started a monthly wine dinner series (including the "Beyond Frybead" dinner Etsitty prepared last week). Senior says she hopes to add a regular series of chef demo classes as well.
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The Tertio menu features mostly small plates, meant to be enjoyed as a light meal or family-style. The menu will also feature a daily chef's table, allowing Etsitty to let his creative juices loose on whatever ingredients they happen to hand him that day. Sounds like a good fit.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: