Chef Karlos Baca waxes poetic on reconnecting indigenous people with their ancestral foods.
By Kristin Butler (originally published by Indian Country Media Network)
It took years of self-study and reconnecting to his ancestral knowledge for Karlos Baca (Diné/Tewa/Nuche) to shed the colonial mind frame that’s so deeply embedded in modern culinary styles. “I had this colonial imprint of how things are supposed to be done in regards to cooking and product and methodology, whereas now I’m the exact opposite,” he said.
While Baca grew up foraging for foods in the San Juan Mountains, his meals rarely detached from European influence. Honing in on pre-reservation foods has radically changed his perspective. “It’s taught me to decolonize my own mind, as far as food is concerned, because I come from the New American and mainstream food—the French, the Japanese and Italian styles of cooking,” Baca said.
Baca formed Taste of Native Cuisine—part indigenous chefs’ collective, part educational initiative, part dinner events—to inspire native people to reconnect with their traditional foods as well. He conceived the idea for it over talks with Nathan Strong Elk, the former director of the Southern Ute Cultural Center. The organization was birthed on Indigenous People’s Day in November 2011. Baca’s first Taste of Native Cuisine multi-course dinner included 16 original dishes with indigenous elements. The goal of Taste of Native Cuisine events is to bring wild harvested and hunted foods to native communities across the country.
While Baca has grown Taste of Native Cuisine over the course of six years, he simultaneously spent the last three years serving as executive chef at one of the most elite and secluded resorts in the United States: Dunton Hot Springs. The Relais & Chateaux property outside of Dolores, Colorado, was the only Colorado resort to make the 2016 Condé Nast Gold List.
“The typical clientele are the rich and the famous,” Baca said. “There are a lot of Four Corners locals who don’t even realize they exist, because it’s out of their tax bracket. It’s a whole other realm of existence.”
It may not sound like Baca’s cup of tea, but the surrounding mountainsides became the site of his sacred morning ritual: foraging for wild foods. The resort’s kitchen became his canvas for those harvested edibles. “One of the benefits of being there was that I could introduce indigenous foods to people from around the globe,” he said. “People outside of indigenous communities, in general, don’t know that there is a separate cuisine of this land,” Baca said. His expressions of indigenous cuisine resonated with his customer base, who were primarily wealthy Anglos. Baca explained to them that hip phrases like “farm-to-table” and “seed-to-table” are just gimmicks. “This is how we existed always,” Baca said.
Baca engaged intrigued guests in discussions about the differentials between indigenous agriculture and mainstream agriculture. He shared how natives harvest wild foods with prayer. “These things are a very foreign concept to their minds,” said Baca, adding that his indigenous foods and perspective were very well embraced.
“The conversations and feedback … it was kind of an awe-inspiring moment for people,” when they tasted new flavors, Baca said. “These are people who travel the entire globe eating at some of the best spots on the planet, and all of a sudden, they’re experiencing these cultural foods that they’ve never heard of, much less thought they’d have a chance to taste.”
While Baca values his three years of experience overseeing the restaurant at Dunton, he chose to move on in October 2016. It was time to return to his original purpose through Taste of Native Cuisine: to reconnect indigenous peoples with their ancestral food knowledge.
Baca’s work involves continuous education, even among natives. “Pre-colonial, indigenous foods—there’s a lot of discussion about what that is,” Baca said. “Even within the indigenous community, pork is a big thing, or mutton. Those things are a modern tradition, but they’re not pre-colonial.”
That constant ability to share knowledge is central to the focus of Taste of Native Cuisine. Baca particularly enjoys taking kids out to harvest piñon or purslane or collect bear root. He feels his most important educational outreach involves shifting perspectives of native youth beyond colonial influence. “There’s this poverty consciousness that permeates the reservation culture and indigenous culture in America,” Baca said.
Baca tells indigenous youth: “You don’t have to accept this as reality. You can break down whatever barriers you want.”
Baca, 41, cannot recall whom he looked up to and admired as a kid. There were fewer public indigenous movers and shakers. “We have tons of positive Indigenous role models in academia now; we have the whole indigenous chef network; we have famous authors, actors, and artists,” Baca said.
While Baca has received national and international recognition for his work, he is continually humbled by his original intent: to revive indigenous culture and strength through food. “There’s a reason why the collective consciousness in Indian country is waking up. Just being able to be part of that is all that I need,” Baca said.
If you single out one chef within the indigenous food sovereignty movement, you’ve lost the point, Baca said. “We work collectively. How do we maintain ownership of that, and not let people define that movement for us?”
It’s a rhetorical question, and a challenging one to ponder. Baca finds the best bet is clarity of message, and that means emphasizing complexity. The diversity of indigenous cuisine cannot fit in a one-sentence definition. Media misrepresent indigenous gastronomy when they try to package it with clickbait headlines, or make bold claims, like proclaiming: “…it’s Baca who’s leading this little-known movement,” as Zagat published in an article last April. Baca maintains that “mainstream media picks an icon and they build it up.”
That said, some press hits the mark and spreads awareness of indigenous cuisine. In February, Baca was co-host of a pop-up dinner in Minneapolis with Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota founder of The Sioux Chef. An AJ+ video of their event has racked up nearly 13 million views and counting on Youtube—and Baca approves.
As for future events, Baca will participate in the 2017 Culinary Breeding Network Variety Showcase in Portland, Oregon, alongside grower and seed keeper Rowen White. The night prior to the event, he’ll host a pop-up dinner highlighting heritage foods with Brian Yazzie, a.k.a. “Yazzie the Chef,” who is currently Chef de Cuisine for The Sioux Chef. Among Baca’s regular educational involvements, he hosts foraging classes and leads indigenous cooking demonstrations across North America.
Baca was born in Durango, Colorado, the city closest to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. When his parents divorced when he was 3, they moved to Cortez, a border town outside of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and Navajo Nation. From ages 4-11, he spent every summer on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio, where he attributes creating his formative food memories with his grandparents.
“My food is very localized, and almost hyper-localized to where I am,” Baca said. “I have bloodlines in Nuche, Diné and Pueblo. When I travel the country, my food goes with me. My learning of this ecosystem, of these agricultural and indigenous products—whether it be the corn or the squash or the type of beans we have here— my region is very, very specific, representative of each of these tribes in certain ways,” Baca said.
Indigenous cuisine in an ever-accumulated knowledge base, rooted in place and time. “There’s a symbiosis that people have lost—not just tribally but worldwide for the most part—of eating with the seasons and the earth providing what your body needs at that point in time,” Baca said. “My food is like that. It’s ever-evolving through micro-regions and micro-seasons.”
That said, Baca makes certain dishes year-round, such as blue corn mush cakes. “For winter hunting parties and winter raids in the Diné and Pueblo culture, we used to make blue corn cakes with bear root,” Baca explained—“little sun-dried cakes next to your dried meat. You could go for days and days and days with this stuff.”
When the wheels in Baca’s mind of a chef start turning, he wonders: How do I expand on that and exemplify it? “Modern taste buds are much different than the old school. I can eat stuff that’s super bitter or heavily earthy or super spicy—but that’s me, because I’m in the woods all the time, and that’s what I do,” Baca said. “I know for the vast public, that’s not the case.”
His solution: switching the ash type from juniper to salt bush to imbue a salinity in place of salt in his blue corn mush, and adding pine needle syrup, bear root, and three leaf sumac to cater to the modern palette.
Baca’s version of the blush corn mush cakes often sparks deep ancestral memories in natives who taste them. At the end of one event, a handful of people told Baca, “‘I hadn’t tasted that flavor from the bear root since my grandma made it when I was a kid.’ There was this activation of memory, which is what has made me continue to make it over the years,” Baca said.
Being a chef offers its creative license. Baca admits he isn’t a big fan of fish. “It’s not a flavor profile that my taste buds enjoy,” he said, “but I know how to make it to where I can.”
For instance, Baca will cook trout wrapped in corn husk, “stuffed with whatever foraged madness is available at the time—wild onions, wild leeks, wild mushrooms, wild berries….” Then he wraps the fish like a tamale and cooks it over an open fire or in coals. “The corn husk pulls that fishy flavor out, and I can eat it, and enjoy it,” he said.
Whenever possible, Baca forgoes contemporary technologies and embraces traditional indigenous food ways. “I love cooking outside. Being trapped in the kitchen is the worst in the world to me,” Baca said. “I’d rather be cooking in the ground, on stones, and in moss, and over open fires and in ornos and all these things—the way it should be.”
For instance, he would rather make a spit outside to smoke meat for days, than to smoke it in a box in his kitchen. He’d rather steam foods in moss, and bury it in the ground, “than use some perforated metal thing with water boiling on the stove,” Baca said. With modern conveniences, much is lost. “Our methodologies and our cooking technologies are so earth-based that they provide so much more flavor,” Baca said.
If moss piqued your interest, talk to Baca. He knows a thing or two about it. “I’ve always been really obsessed with moss. I carry an eye piece with 14 times magnification to study them. I am always searching for which ones are edible,” he said.
Baca sometimes garnishes his dishes with moss, when it compliments the ecosystem on the plate. That stems from his global culinary education. The Japanese honor the life of the fish, animal or plants on the plate by “sending it away with a part of its homeland.” In that vein, Baca likewise sends a dish away with “part of its place and time. I want it to be representative of its place in the San Juan Mountains, or the high desert of New Mexico, or wherever it may be.”
Baca also practices the agricultural side of indigenous food ways. This year alone, he has set up three gardens, all with heritage crops—featuring everything from Hopi blue and Zuni sweet corn to Ute Hubbard, Navajo chumash, and Hopi pumpkin and tepary beans from Tohono O’odham.
For Baca, the concept of ancestral knowledge is very profound. It should come as no surprise that in college, he majored in psychology—which does come into play in his industry. “Kitchens tend to have a collective of pirates in there, all with their own emotional imbalances, and you have to be able to maneuver each individual very specifically,” he joked.
While Baca earned various collegiate and culinary degrees, the former psychology major ultimately returned to food. His best classroom remains the wild. “Whereas most people would take a class to learn foraging, I spend lots and lots of time in the woods. It’s all life cycle. It’s not out of books, it’s people—although I love to grab a mountain foraging book and flip through it and compare my data,” he said.
Baca calls foraging in Mother Nature his “prayer time—getting up before the sun.” He estimates he spends a minimum of 20 hours per week hunting for wild edibles.
For Baca, living off the land isn’t a choice; it’s essential. “It’s a lifestyle. I live it and breath it. There’s something out there that just calls me to do it.”