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Freddie Bitsoie Is Cooking
Although he's gaining acclaim for his work in the kitchen, Freddie Bitsoie isn't a celebrity chef per se, and he likes it that way. He has more important work to do, such as changing perceptions about Native American cuisine.

By Jacki Mieler

Culinary trends come and go almost as quickly as new cell phones become obsolete. Yesterday's fondue is today's tapas.

Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie is happy to let those trends pass him by. He'll let the celebrity chefs cater to the hungry masses who clamor for the next big thing. Bitsoie prefers to keep his mission simple: He's out to change perceptions about Native American food, both with indigenous cultures and the non-Native population.

It's not that Native American cuisine isn't trendy. People are eager to connect with Native American culture, and food is the easiest gateway to make that connection. But Bitsoie thinks that many restaurants and chefs are missing the mark, watering down the traditional food to be nothing more than Native-inspired.

"Using blue cornmeal to make polenta doesn't make it Native," he contends.

Bitsoie saw food billed as "Native" when it really was just a Native ingredient dressed up in French clothes. Sure, bison tenderloin is a traditional Native American food. But Bitsoie doesn't remember it being drenched in hollandaise sauce when he was growing up.

He knows he has a tough road ahead of him. Bitsoie likens it to the battle that Native American artists fight with people who mass produce traditional Native goods and bill them as authentic. He sees this same disenfranchisement with food, and as the trend threatens to boil over, he's stepping up to try to contain it.

Growing up in the Four Corners area, both on and off the Navajo Reservation, Bitsoie unknowingly started developing his own definition of Native American food at a young age.

He turned his nomadic childhood, spent moving around every three years for his father's job, into his own personal study in cultural differences.

Bitsoie's parents balanced the instability created by constant relocation with maintaining a deep connection to their Navajo heritage. No matter where they called home, his family always had food to tie them to the reservation.

Refusing to succumb to the modern convenience of frozen meals, Bitsoie's mother was the first person to introduce him to the Navajo food culture. But it wasn't until he studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico that Bitsoie began making the undeniable connection between food and culture.

With one semester left, Bitsoie rerouted his journey and enrolled in a Phoenix-area cooking school. He thought this would help him put together the pieces floating around in his head about the intersection of food and culture.

Like most pioneers, Bitsoie didn't have his "aha" moment in the classroom. It took a brief stint serving as the director of the school's new Native food program for Bitsoie to have a breakthrough. He was baffled as to why they wouldn't bat an eyelash at spending $2,000 on truffles from France, but questioned $20 for cholla cactus buds.

He thought they were trying to ride the coattails of the Native American food trend without investing the time and resources into fully understanding the meaning behind the concept. Bitsoie knew it was time to strike out on his own, finally having the clarity he'd sought for so long.

FJ Bits Concepts and Consultant allowed Bitsoie to combine his passion for empowering tribal members to embrace their food traditions with his desire to educate the non-Native population about Native American cuisine.

Armed with the belief that "Native food is the product of each individual Native culture within this country," Bitsoie preached that food is not culture. In redefining the trendy concept of Native cuisine, Bitsoie realized that culture is always evolving, and yielding products, such as food.

"Native American food" can't be one generic, homogenous category. Just as tribes across the nation have different ceremonies, they each have culturally specific dishes and food.

Instead of lumping them all together, Bitsoie celebrates their differences. By inspiring tribes to return to their culinary roots, he plays a role in tackling the health issues that have plagued Native American nations since the introduction of Western foods.

"Anytime you change the diet of an entire people, there will be effects," says Shane Plumer, a wellness consultant for the White Earth Nation in Minnesota. Plumer brought Bitsoie on board to mitigate those effects. But Bitsoie didn't go in and tell them all the things they can't have. He gave them the tools to make smart decisions when they're in the grocery store. He even gave them a salad bar in their government center. To Plumer's delight, it's working, and he gives Bitsoie the credit for empowering them to take control of their own health.

Bitsoie is a bit of a celebrity on the White Earth Nation, and his unofficial role as the spokesperson for Native American food has done little to quash that celebrity status.

He sells out lectures at Phoenix's Heard Museum and Desert Botanical Garden. He's a regular in television station kitchens. He's even created a demand for a different type of Native artist to "perform" at conferences and events.

"They used to hire the flute player or the hoop dancer. Now they're hiring the Native chef," Bitsoie says.

Bitsoie won't rule out owning a restaurant someday, but as with everything in his career, it'll take research to get it right. In the meantime, this academic at heart will leave the latest trends to other chefs. He'll be focusing on the traditions.

For more information about FJ Bits Concepts and Consultant, visit www.fjbits.com.

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