Indigenous cafe uses Indigenous cuisine to help its chefs fight addiction | Indigenous peoples

DAlong State Route 73 in eastern Arizona, it’s an open sky and red rock landscape, dotted with ponderosa pines, juniper bushes, yucca and prickly poppies. Just outside the White Mountain Apache town of Whiteriver, the blue roof of a gas station appears.

Only, it is no longer a service station. The sign that once showed gas prices now welcomes visitors to Café Gozhóó, a new restaurant celebrating Western Apache cuisine. Inside, executive chef Nephi Craig — who is White Mountain Apache and Diné, the Navajo word for the Navajo people — slices freshly roasted corn on the cob to make Apache cornbread, three sisters salad and broth. soup. Executive chef David Williams, who is also White Mountain Apache and Diné, cooks up breakfast burritos and a cedar smoked queso fresco.

But Café Gozhóó, which opened its doors last October, is not just a restaurant. It is also a vocational training program at the Rainbow Treatment Center, a drug treatment program run by the White Mountain Apache Tribe since 1976.

Divonne Mason, chef at Café Gozhóó, grew up in Whiteriver, Arizona, and remembers planting seeds in her grandmother’s cornfield. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

Craig, who has been sober for 10 years, is the center’s nutritional recovery program coordinator and uses cooking to teach therapeutic skills – connecting with ancestral foods, stress management and teamwork – to people who are recovering from drug addiction. Since the cafe’s opening, a handful of students have completed the six-month paid professional program, and hundreds more have attended weekly nutritional recovery classes.

recovery skills

Divonne Mason, chef de partie at Café Gozhóó, recalls a childhood full of food growing up in Whiteriver. She planted seeds along the banks of the river in her grandmother’s cornfield, where she also attended family meals and learned how to slaughter a cow. And when she was older, her first job was working in her aunt’s food truck. Despite the growing presence of fast food restaurants and the lack of nearby grocery stores, her grandmother helped their family stay connected to their food traditions.

In college, Mason remembers that she and her friends started drinking, often with older cousins. It was just the right thing to do, she said. The 2018 National Survey of Drug Use and Health found that nearly one in five young Native American adults has a substance use disorder, often due to historical trauma and mental illness. alcohol made available in the reserves. But she didn’t realize that drinking too much could make a person sick, until her young niece asked her why her eyes had started to turn yellow. Mason was later hospitalized with jaundice, and when she was discharged from treatment, she checked herself into the Rainbow Treatment Center.

Two men work near stoves in a professional kitchen.  A blue post-it note attached to a hanging shelf filled with shiny metal tools indicates
Chef Nephi Craig uses notes in the kitchen to help his staff develop skills and work as a team. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

It was through the center that she was put in touch with Café Gozhóó. She said the skills she learned there helped her recover.

Patience is required to cook foods such as Bundi’tunneh or Apache Snowshoe Bread, which is cooked one piece at a time over oak and juniper embers in an open fire. There’s the ability to keep calm under pressure as she helps prepare meals for lunch, while hungry customers wait. And there is teamwork. “If I need something, like if I’m busy making the dough, Harold will make the fire. Or if I forget something, like I forgot the carrots, Chef Williams will help me,” she said.

These therapeutic skills are central to Craig’s coffee mission. Repetition and relationship building are essential to cognitive-behavioral therapy, so the kitchen is a powerful environment for clients to “build their skills, get in tune with all of their senses, motor skills, feeling of belonging, of being part of a team,” he said.

Café Gozhóó also fills a critical gap in access to care. Many traditional recovery programs are located far from Native American communities and often lack trained counselors in culturally competent care. During his own journey to sobriety, Craig said, “I would meet white counselors who would say to me, ‘You are predisposed to alcoholism as a Native. But as he delved into his own study of recovery, he realized, “It’s therapy’s rejection of our legacy of historic trauma.”

A close up view of a plate of food with green salad and corn.  Gloved hands add a finishing touch to the plate.
Café Gozhóó dishes “allow people to build a relationship with food,” says chef Nephi Craig. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

“We really are, in our hearts and minds, a clinical environment,” Craig said of Café Gozhóó. “We allow people to build a relationship with food, with themselves, and with our Apache landscape.”

Discover food traditions

When Craig and his team prepare a meal, they always discuss the origin of the dishes they cook. Much of their produce is grown locally, just 15 minutes down the coffee route, at Ndée Bikíyaa, or the People’s Farm. A project of the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s water resources department, Ndée Bikíyaa occupies 900 acres (364 hectares) south of the city, where farmers grow corn, onions, peppers and other produce, which will be served at local schools – and at Café Gozhóó.

A person wearing a hat uses a hose to rinse a black wheelbarrow in front of a small house that serves as a greenhouse.
Ndée Bikíyaa, which means People’s Farm, is the source of much of Café Gozhóó’s products. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian
View from inside a tunnel greenhouse on the farm.  An irrigation line can be seen in the dirt.
Ndée Bikíyaa, just 15 minutes from the café, grows maize, onions, peppers and other produce that will be served to local schools. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

“We are trying to find ways to control food-related diseases among the population. Many of us are related to people with diabetes, hypertension,” said Ciara Minjarez, Education Outreach Coordinator, who is White Mountain Apache and Gila River Pima. With few options to buy healthy food in town, she said, “We want to reach more people and say, ‘Come buy your food here. It’s here, grown locally, and it’s way better than what we have in the stores.

At Café Gozhóó, even dishes that don’t seem to have obvious indigenous roots — like ratatouille — can reveal the rich food history of the Americas, since the tomatoes and squash typical of the French recipe originate from the American Southwest.

But even with Café Gozhóó and Ndée Bikíyaa, Whiteriver and the surrounding reservations of Fort Apache and San Carlos Apache are still considered food deserts.

A person wearing a woven sun hat watches the crops on the farm.
Food deserts are common on reserves and Ndée Bikíyaa provides the community with an option for healthy eating. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

Food deserts are common on reservations because when colonizers drove Native Americans from their ancestral lands, they also restricted their access to plants they had long cultivated and even forced them to raise different types of livestock. And the reservations were often on land that was not suitable for agriculture, so communities came to depend on government food rations, which were often culturally inappropriate and less nutritious than their traditional foods.

“We are not too far from that time in history where so many of our food traditions, parenting traditions, ceremonies, farming traditions had to be abandoned and almost lost due to so much conflict in the American Southwest,” said Craig. .

Café Gozhóó’s mission is not only to support recovery from addiction, but also recovery from historical trauma, he said.

Two men can be seen through a window working with food, with the rest of the kitchen reflected in the glass.
Harold Hawthorne and Nephi Craig use the refrigerated station to prepare lunch at Café Gozhóó. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

Reconciling care and cooking

Before starting to work at Café Gozhóó, Williams developed her love for cooking by watching celebrity chefs, like Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain, on television. But once he started working in restaurants, he quickly learned that many difficult aspects of the culinary industry are not shown on television.

“In the kitchen culture, there’s a lot of anxiety and depression,” he said, in addition to high rates of suicide and substance abuse. But at Café Gozhóó, he sees a camaraderie that contrasts with the traditionally competitive environment of professional kitchens and has begun to practice some of the sobriety lessons himself, stepping back from his own relationship with alcohol and focusing about discipline and teamwork in life. and the kitchen.

“Coming here, I listen to what the chef is saying and try to use those tools — mixing cooking philosophy and lifestyle changes,” Williams said.

A man wearing a chef's apron holds a cast iron skillet in one hand as he cooks on an industrial stove.
Café Gozhóó chef David Williams finishes a breakfast order. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

At the Rainbow Treatment Center and Café Gozhóó, Craig and others view drug and alcohol addiction as health disparities resulting from their community being cut off from its land, culture and resources. For this reason, working on White Mountain Apache land is central to the coffeehouse’s success, Craig said. “My family comes from here. My heritage comes from here. The power that keeps me sober comes from here.

It is largely for this reason that the treatment center chose the name Café Gozhóó, which means happiness, harmony or balance in the Western Apache language. “Everything we need for recovery is already embedded in our culture,” Craig said.

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