Chefs Hugo Ortega, Laura Cole, and Brian Yazzie share their tales of the West through their lives and food.
If food is narrative, chefs are storytellers. In kitchens all over the West, chefs are making a difference in how we eat by telling their stories through what’s presented on the plate. C&I talked with three chefs whose food — and tales — we particularly love. James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega connects with his family and Mexican roots; Laura Cole celebrates the rich bounty of the Last Frontier; and Brian Yazzie keeps the foodways of his and other indigenous cultures alive. Each has a unique and powerful approach to how they cook and taste the West.
Where to find him: At one of his four restaurants in Houston, including the Bon Appétit “Top Table” Hugo’s, and the newest, Xochi, which serves modern Oaxacan cuisine inspired by the dishes his grandmother used to make.
Why he’s noteworthy: After six nominations, Ortega won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2017.
Most vivid childhood food memory: “When my grandmother would toast cacao beans on a clay comal, we knew two things would happen: one was mole and the other, chocolate.”
Describe your style in three words: “From the heart. Sometimes after I make a dish, I’ll close my eyes and think about the ingredients, and I think, If I present this to my grandma, what would she think?”
Favorite ingredient: “Chocolate. It’s the most intriguing ingredient by far and the most iconic, along with corn.”
Breakfast: “On Sundays at Hugo’s we have brunch, and I’ll have chilaquiles. But during weekdays, I’ll just eat a tortilla with house-made queso fresco. Simplicity for me is important.”
Last meal: “A crunchy chicharrón with avocado and fresh tomatillo salsa.”
If he weren’t a chef he’d be ... “A clothing designer. I love shoes and clothes.”
On the menu now: “Right now in Mexico, they’re picking flying ants called chicatana, a unique flying ant. People season and toast it and make a quick salsa with it. Or you can make an incredible mole with chicatana, which is what we do, and we serve it with steak. They’re big — a half-inch long and kind of meaty-tasting, kind of gamey. After the first rains in the spring, they begin to fly, and dogs go wild trying to catch and eat them. They hatch for maybe a week, so you have to be very aware. It’s part of our ancient traditions.” chefhugoortega.com
Where to find her: She’s the owner-executive chef at 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern at Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska.
Why she’s noteworthy: A two-time James Beard Award semifinalist, her restaurant, 229 miles north of Anchorage, is a destination for daily changing menus featuring innovative hyper-local cuisine, including eggs from her neighbor’s chickens and honey from the area’s 4-H club.
Cooking style in three words: “Foraged, farmed, Alaskan.”
A signature dish: “House-made lemon semolina pasta, leeks, king crab, dill with lemon oil, and a hint of cayenne. It’s served with a carrot reduction sauce and a little bit of butter.”
Favorite ingredient: “Reindeer. It’s not like beef; it’s slightly sweet, but the meat is very lean. We have a reindeer hanging right now for prosciutto. We get whole reindeer, break it down, and sell the extra fat to a company that makes soap out of it.”
Breakfast: “Yogurt, granola, and honey. It’s probably the only meal I eat during the day. I make my own granola, and I eat Greek yogurt because it has a higher protein content, plus I like the texture.”
Favorite kitchen tool: “A Vitamix is my lifeblood. I have two. You need a backup of everything, because if something breaks, you can’t just go to the store.”
What you’ve made recently that you love: “I like the octopus dish the way we’re doing it now: poached and charred with squid ink noodles tossed with orange oil with ham-hock broth, tomatoes, jalapeño, and flat-leaf parsley. There’s the sweet char of octopus, briny squid ink, and bite of jalapeño. It’s unexpected.”
Hero chef: “Alice Waters, hands down. She’s a strong woman in this industry, but she’s never lost her compassion for the story that ingredients tell on their way to becoming a dish.” 229parks.com
Where to find him: He’s the chef de cuisine at The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis.
Why he’s noteworthy: Yazzie, who’s from Dennehotso, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, uses modern techniques with ancestral knowledge along with pre-contact ingredients, locally sourced and from tribal farms around the nation, to create innovative cuisine. He’s one to watch in the indigenous food movement.
Dish he’s created lately: “Red Lake Reservation wild rice pilaf with heirloom carrots from a local farm, parsnips, ramps [with] a Hopi blue-corn-crusted Red Lake walleye, one of the main staples of Minnesota fishing, with a foraged-greens pesto.”
What he eats every day: “I mostly use pre-European-contact ingredients. A few items I have in my pantry at home: I have dried heirloom beans, corn, amaranth, quinoa, and different cornmeals/flours and processed foraged fruits, nuts, greens, and mushrooms.”
What you won’t find in his kitchen: White sugar and highly processed foods. He uses agave nectar, honey, pure maple syrup, and raw sugar instead.
Favorite ingredient: “Corn. You can do a lot with corn. Right now, I’m working on a blue-corn sorbet with agave and a pinyon tart. The blue corn is from my tribe, Navajo, and the agave is from my area, the Southwest.”
Breakfast is usually ... “Coffee and pinyons. I’m not a big breakfast person.”
Lunch: “I’ve got some leftover bison, fresh ramps, and a gluten-free bagel, so I’ll probably do something with that. I’ll toast up the bagel, wilt the ramps, reheat the bison on the stovetop, and make a sandwich. The other day, I made spruce-tip syrup, so I might add that to boost the flavor.”
Three words to describe his cooking style: “Coast to coast. I’m Navajo from the Southwest and I definitely focus on my region, but I have been residing in the Twin Cities the past five years and have gained so much knowledge about Great Lakes food culture. There are chefs who focus on micro-regional foods, but as for me, I like to work with ingredients across the board. For example, I have a go-to dish and it consists of wild rice, sage, maple-glazed salmon from Alaska, nopales, and New Mexico Hatch green chile salsa. It’s all about respecting the food with appropriation and keeping its natural flavor profile.” sioux-chef.com
From the October 2017 Taste of the West issue.