This is part two of our interview with Chef Renetto-Mario Etsitty of Tertio in Phoenix. Today he tells the Navajo story of hunger, shares his favorite childhood cooking memory and gives his not-so-gentle thoughts on cilantro. If you missed the first part of this week's Chef and Tell in which he explained how he got started hosting monthly First Friday feasts for local artists and community members, you can read it here.
One dish to sum up your cooking style: Paella, a rustic Valencian rice dish that is slowly cooked over an open fire with a variety of ingredients including meats, veggies, and saffron. A dish often shared with friends on a dazzling night under the stars.
Where does your inspiration come from?: My grandmother provided me with many lessons to survive in this world. She has given me the tools to transcend the boundary of the Diné homeworld, to be culturally ambidextrous and innovative, all for the love of family and community.
Favorite thing about the Phoenix food scene: That there isn't one, or to say that the food scene itself is unmolded, thereby being pliable. That there is opportunity to foster the food scape with our cultural and ethnic diversity.
One thing most people don't know about you: I'm a multimedia artist, with an emphasis in drawing and sculpture. Currently, I have drawings displayed at the Phoenix Ice House.
If you could travel anywhere in the world it would be to: Truly, everywhere. In October 2012 I attended the Salone del Gusto & Terra Madre in Turin, Italy, and now I wish to visit as much of the world as possible and explore the local, native cuisines at their sources. A lot of my interplay with flavors and ingredients is an extension of this desire.
What are you currently reading/watching:
Reading -- A Magic Dwells, a poetic and psychological study of the Navajo emergence by Sheila Moon. A book that evaluates the beauty of the Diné origins in slight comparison to Christian mythology and others.
Watching -- The Snow Walker, a beautiful film about the survival of a maverick white guy and a traditional young Inuit woman. Almost anthropological, the story isn't too sentimental in showing the merging of two worlds finding the will, respect, and cooperation in a disparate struggle to survive.
What made you want to put on the First Friday feasts: I grew up in the Four Corners region where all night ceremonies are sanctioned with late evening feasts. Our ceremonies are essentially temporal social art installations with a focus on fostering harmony and beauty. By sharing water, grinding salt, and breaking bread we come together after the First Friday art walk and celebrate our intent as artists, writers, performers, etc. to bring our community together. By acknowledging our friends, family, and neighbors we strengthen our community. Key elements of Diné philosophy is courtesy, generosity, kinship, and hope.
Your favorite place for late-night eats: Often exiting a film screening after 1 a.m. this is one of my major concerns. Aside from mostly unhealthy often fast food oriented options, I would elect Delux as my go to place. Sweet potato fries and decent burger and sandwiches, although there is too much white flour and not a lot of fresh or vegan options.
Most overrated cooking technique: Wow, OVER-rated? Personally I think every technique has its purpose and brings out particular characteristics of a dish or ingredient. So often there are several underrated cooking techniques that I'm sure many aren't aware of. But, I will say that grilling is bit overrated since, often times, grilled dishes are very dependent on the person grilling. There is an unforgivable moment of time in which a grilled item is perfect and when it becomes equivalent to a leather chew toy.
Name a trend or restaurant practice you like: Rouge eateries. Shared family style with fresh local, organic, mostly vegan, and quality meats, dairy, and artisanal breads, sundries, etc.
Your essential local ingredients, the ones you couldn't cook without: Piñon nuts, blue corn meal, sundried tomatoes, and chilies.
Most overrated ingredient: Cilantro. Aside from it being evil, it destroys the dish.
Best thing about the downtown community: That it feels very small-"townish" -- everybody knows or has met everybody else.
One local chef you admire and why: Currently, I don't know many by name. In any case, most often, it's the staff that makes the actual meal. Currently, I am impressed with Hillstone at Biltmore. Usually out of my price range, but I splurge on their sushi rolls and seasonal vegetable sides.
Favorite childhood food memory: One of my vivid memories was looking for a sandstone grill with my grandmother, near an outcropping of red with white streaked sandstone. The stone is used for making paper bread, tsé 'astée, a traditional delicate bread with rolled layers of parchment thin blue corn and juniper ash. Made by smearing handfuls of thin blue corn batter over the hot stone. While we were searching, my grandmother told stories about making paper bread, she said that the spinal cord from the sheep's spine is perfect for making the stone nonstick. The stone would be seasoned with ground seeds and piñon pitch. When we had located a perfect stone, to our surprise we found a rattlesnake underneath it. That was a frightful moment. Since there is a taboo against using anything a snake touches we had to continue our search in the bright afternoon sun.
One thing you would want people to know about Navajo or Diné Nuevo food is: Simple in essence relying on the natural qualities of the ingredients. Traditionally our foods were healthy, nutritious, organic, and inclusive. From agriculture, husbandry, hunting, and gathering our traditional foods sustained our sovereign nation until the assimilation tactic of bia boarding schools and commodity assistance changed our relationship with the seasons. The Diné are conservationists by nature, but creativity and innovation are their core sentiments to change. Spices and ingredients that were once unheard of are slowly making its way into traditional dishes. With each family gatherings, peyote meetings, and ceremonial feasts, these new "mutts" are being shared and copied.
Fry bread is: Hweldi bááh. The Diné Bread of Affliction. Many people take the origin of Frybread for granted. Hweldi is the place of our concentration camp in eastern New Mexico. The Long Walk is our Trail of Tears. Many clans were forced to make the journey from the home world. Many people died from starvation, exhaustion, heartache, and dysentery. At hweldi the Diné were introduced to white flour. Unfamiliar with it, the people tried eating it as is, the way corn meal was eaten in times of distress. The flour caused mouth sores and rashes. Many people died as a result. So Frybread has a dark and sad beginning. But out of darkness as all beginning are, there came knowledge and adaptation. A simple combination of flour, salt, and baking powder became frybread. Today it is a pan-Native American delicacy. The bread is typically savory, honey and powered sugar is noted as touristy.
If you weren't a chef what would you be doing?: Writing, prose and poetry or teaching. And of course art which is a constant.
One lesson to pass on to future chefs: Be reverent, uninhibited, creative, and generous.
In Diné culture, respect is paramount. For our survival plants and animals came to our aid, taught us their ways. Sharing foods gives us time to share stories and interests. For the Diné the story of hunger involves the twins, monster slayer and born-for-water. It is told that [they] came upon the nayéé hunger. They were about to strike the monster down, but the monster pleaded with the twins, saying, "Grandsons, why would you kill me? I am dichin hastíín (hunger), how are people going to live in the future without me? Would you have them eating just once? One meal forever? If I am around, I will twist their intestines reminding them of hunger. If I am around, there will be new foods to eat and taste. The people will nourish themselves and become strong, formidable, with life and motion. They will come together to build community, friendship, and learn to share in their bounty. Is it not so that the human bodies have an opening for the intake and outtake for foods?" To this the twins replied, "We will spare your life, you may be useful to the future generations." So, to this day, because hunger was a nayéé (monster) we say "hunger is about to kill me" or "my intestines are crying" when we feel the need to eat. So it is said.
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Where do you see yourself (or want to see yourself) in five years: Have my own cafe studio hybrid, and travel the global culinary hotspots. In sha'allah (God willing).
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: