Freddie Bitsoie (Diné [Navajo]), the museum's new executive chef, at the grilling station in the Northwest Coast area of the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe. September 2016, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C. NMAI staff photo.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
I'm Freddie Bitsoie, executive chef of the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Can you share with us an introduction in the traditional way?
I am born of my mother’s clan, the Tábąąhá (Edgewater People). I am born for my father’s clan, the Nát'oh dine' é Táchii'nii (Red Running into the Water People). My maternal grandfather’s clan are the Tł'ááshchí'í (Red Bottom People) and my paternal grandfather’s are the Tsi'naajinii (Dark Streak Wood People). This is how I identify myself as Diné (Navajo).
Where is your community located?
I was born in Monticello, Utah. My mother is from Aneth, Utah, near the Four Corners, and my father was from Birdsprings, Arizona, just north of Winslow, Arizona.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Southwest, mainly in Arizona. However, we moved around a lot when I was growing up. I like to tell people that I lived in almost every town along Interstate 40 from Albuquerque, New Mexico, going west to the California–Arizona border.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
Not as far as I know. I have yet to hear a story of any.
When did you decide to get into the culinary and food industry?
I was a senior in college. My major was Anthropology and my minor was Art History. It started with a conversation with my Anthropology professor, Dr. David Stewart. He asked about my interest in Ancient Puebloan food ways. He encouraged me to look into studying food from a different perspective and to question why Indigenous food didn’t have a prominence of any sort. I left my studies at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and moved to Phoenix to enroll in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
I went to learn how the kitchen works and to discover the discipline of cooking. I ended up loving the work environment and the people. As I tell people all the time, “In the beginning, it was the best $8 an hour I made." I didn't go back to UNM, which was my original plan. I stayed in the culinary field.
What educational and employment path did you follow to become an executive chef?
After culinary school in Scottsdale I worked hands-on in a kitchen. For about five or six years I was in and out of the kitchen. Then I got a teaching job at another culinary school in Scottsdale, the Classic Cooking Academy. They no longer give professional cooking classes. I was their director of Native American Programs. Then I stated my own business, training kitchens throughout the continent
What does Native cooking mean to you?
Traditional cooking has much to do with storytelling. I don’t think there has ever been a time when I have not experienced someone telling stories over cooking. My grandmother used to do it all time, no matter if the stories were repeated.
What are some stereotypes you hope to break concerning Native foods?
“Boring," "bland," and "grainy” are descriptions I hear of Native foods. But there are big differences when it comes to these ideas. Foods and dishes are different things. Many people think that Native foods have no capacity for expression, as European dishes do.
What are some challenges you foresee as the executive chef in a Native museum?
My work style is very laid back. I'm not one of those chefs people see on TV throwing things around. I’m passionate about what I do. I love what I do and I am where I want to be. If there are any challenges, I gladly welcome them. I am sure they will only make me stronger. But, to answer your question directly, one challenge will be acquiring very rare traditional ingredients from around the Western Hemisphere.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
The people who have inspired me are the other Native chefs I've worked with. We have the same goals, the same passion about what we do. The directions may be different, but the destination is the same: to promote Native foods and tells stories through food.
What traditional foods are your specialty?
I specialize in southwestern cooking and the differences in the ways tribes cook and prepare food. I also specialize in preparing and cooking game.
What is your personal favorite food to eat?
I love osso buco, which is known as an Italian dish. It's braised veal shank.
What is your favorite food to cook?
I like to cook Italian foods. I enjoy the rustic elegance of most Italian country dishes. They are much closer to Native dishes, just with more cheese. During cold months I also enjoy ground beef and potato with onion and New Mexican green chile wrapped in a tortilla.
Where are some of the places you worked before coming to the Mitsitam Cafe?
I worked for casinos, colleges, and tribes as a consultant and trainer for kitchens and communities—Leech Lake Community College, Sky Ute Casino, Talking Stick Resort, the College of the Holy Cross, Idyllwild Arts. My most recent job before coming to the museum was as executive chef at the Navajo casino in Gallup, New Mexico.
What are some barriers you have faced in redefining Native American cuisine?
“There is no such thing as a Native chef." Or, "There is no such thing as Native cuisine.” Many times when I do jobs around the country, one of the first reactions I get is, “What are Native foods?” Then, "Is there actually a career in that?"
Is there any pressure associated with being the first Native to serve as executive chef at the National Museum of the American Indian?
The changes I plan to bring will be to promote Native foods and dishes that are as authentic as possible. The main source of pressure will be staying true to Native cooking technique.
What food changes or new ideas do you hope to offer visitors to the Mitsitam Cafe?
I feel would like everyone to be able to experience classic dishes from each region. I plan to place more truly classic dishes on the menu.
What educational path and experiences would you recommend for Native people who would like to break into the culinary foods industry?
I would recommend that people attend a college that has a culinary program and taking other classes that will enrich their intellect as well. Many aspiring chefs go to culinary programs at a trade school. But those credits are not transferable, and students often do not have the choice to take classes other than culinary subjects. Not many people make it far in the culinary business because of how demanding it can be, so having credits in other disciplines would be a big plus.
But first, I stress working in the field and getting used to the hours and time—people knowing full well what they will be getting themselves into. I have worked every Thanksgiving since I became a cook. There are hardly any holidays off.
What message would you like to share with young people who are pursuing careers in the culinary arts?
The culinary profession is a very romantic field. Most of the images people see from outside are of chefs traveling and enjoying life. In truth, most chefs wash dishes and mop. Teamwork is the most important thing anyone has to know before entering a kitchen.
It is a great field for self-discipline, spiritual and creative enrichment, and self-fulfillment. Well, that is what it has done for me.
—Dennis Zotigh, National Museum of the American Indian
Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Meet Native America, his interview series with tribal leaders, appears regularly on the museum's blog and on the Indian Country Today Media Network.