As a 5-year-old, Claire Wescott went to the Navajo reservation and gathered wild carrots, an experience that set her on a path to become a chef — one of four who will be offering Indigenous foods at a fundraiser this week.
“I did not grow up on a reservation, but Native food has always played a huge part in my life,” said Westcott, who is a descendant of the Southern Ute and Dine tribes. “It just became a curiosity that I couldn’t (shake). I love being outdoors and gathering those wild ingredients and then bringing them home to my kitchen, and transforming those into something edible.”
Westcott, 34, who trained at Johnson and Wales University, recently moved from Carbondale to Denver and is in the process of finding work in a restaurant. While she looks, she’ll be able to earn a $2,000 honorarium cooking at a June 14 event called Denver EATSS (Epicurian Award to Support Scholars) being held at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora.
For the fundraiser, she and three other Indigenous chefs will prepare samples of food they are connected to, and serve it to guests, who will pay at least $85. Proceeds go to the American Indian College Fund, based in Denver. This is the third time the event has been held here. Similar fundraisers occur in New York and Minnesota, according to Nancy Jo Houk, who heads the fund’s resource development team. Money raised will be used for scholarships, college preparatory activities for students, and for students to attend conferences and seminars, she said.
“The EATSS format really is having Native chefs come to the event… the purpose is for them to take the foods that are Indigenous to their tribal nation, or where they come from, and create dishes from those ingredients for people to taste,” Houk said. “I also ask them to share a little bit about their tribal history and what the dish means in that context.”
For Westcott, that should be easy. She’ll be able to talk about some culinary tribal traditions that are important in her cuisine: slow cooking, locally sourced ingredients, and wild foods. The chef already has her menu in mind.
“I will be cooking a Ute corn hush puppy .. and I’ll be serving that with a green chili puree and some crispy chimayo bison. And in that dish, I’m using some ingredients that are native to the tribes that I am from, so I’m really excited.”
Her take on the hush puppy – it includes a chili native to New Mexico — is part of her extensive repertoire. “I wouldn’t say I’m known for a specific dish, but I am known for using wild ingredients in my food. And I do specialize in woodfire cooking — anything from baking in a wood fire clay oven to just cooking basically with a grill over a fire.”
Other chefs include Andrea Murdoch, an Andean Native from Caracas Venezuela; Bradley Drey, from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; and Crystal Wahpepah, of the Kickapoo Nation of Oklahoma.
Houk said the fundraiser is not only about raising money but also creating a platform for Native people to share a part of themselves.
“A lot of the reason we do this event — absolutely, yes, we went to raise money — is to provide the platform for our students and for Native people to be able to share their culture with people who don’t know a lot about their culture,” Houk said. “So if we accomplish that and raise money, that would make for a perfect evening.”
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