Interview with an Indigenous Chef: Justin Pioche

Name: Justin Pioche 
Location: Upper Fruitland, NM 
Education/background: Kirtland Central High school (diploma), Arizona Culinary Institute (Certificate in Culinary Arts) 
Business name: Pioche FoodGroup, LLC  
Tribal affiliation: Navajo. Salt Clan Navajo born for the Folded Arms People 

What led to your passion for indigenous foods? 
I was not raised traditionally. I was born in Farmington, NM, but spent a lot of my time in Phoenix, AZ, throughout my life. That is where I got my background in cooking and where I went to school. I did a lot of fine dining out there and being in that realm, I discovered that food is my passion. After Phoenix, I moved back to Upper Fruitland, NM, where I am living again.  

I knew that something was missing. I knew that I had to connect to food another way somehow, because in fine dining you’re kind of just taking bits and pieces from here and there, unless you’re a super genius and able to recreate the way we think about food. I was planning on trying to get to that point, but I ended up getting more curious about where our food was coming from. I started asking, why do we have to use food from the supermarket? And why don’t we have more diverse food at the farmer’s markets? I always knew that Navajo “cuisine” was there, and I always enjoyed it. But there wasn’t a whole lot to it. It was more like soul food to me, and it was nourishing. Then I started getting a little more curious and asking, where do these foods come from…and what is the origin of frybread? 

The more I started learning about my culture, the more I realized that there was a lot of history that I didn’t know. I started asking questions, going to seminars, attending Native teachings and things, and I have learned a lot since then. I found that we are really misled on a lot of topics. ‘Frybread’ is one example that I like to use. It is not traditional Navajo food whatsoever. It’s a really sad story when you go back and look at the origins of how we got that, through The Long Walk. They were testing different foods on us including flour, commodity cheese, etc. Our people started to mix the flour with water and drink it. This mixture then turned into clay in their stomachs, and many ended up dying. Right now, I do not advocate for frybread being true Navajo food. We had an array of grains and berries and wild game that used to be available out here and that’s what I’m really trying to utilize more in our food program.  

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives? 
I feel that traditional food in Navajo land should be accessible to Navajo people completely. What I have been finding, especially in this area, is that a lot of our foods were basically wiped out. There is a lot of food we used to have that does not grow here anymore or grows very little. This was done in an effort to erase us of this area. We did not have things like frybread or “Navajo burgers”. We had foods like amaranth, sumac, and lamb’s quarter. These are the foods that our people were surviving on. Having access to these foods is important to show the history of where we came from and what we were fighting for. I don’t know if people even realize that food like amaranth was illegal for a long time for Native Americans. I feel that food does much more than make you full or nourished; for Navajo people, it’s what kept us alive throughout hard times and we would celebrate with food and utilize a lot of it in sacred ceremonies. 

What other ways (besides your business) are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods? 
I own a food service business called Pioche Food Group. As of last year, we started partnering with a farm that I now work with called Navajo Ethno-Agriculture. It is basically a learning farm and they invite different schools to learn about agriculture, Navajo foods, how we cultivate it, etc. It’s been a big learning experience. An opportunity popped up for me to get paid to be here as sort of a paid internship through the AmeriCorps VISTA Program, which I am now also a part of as well as a Food Hero for the United Nations. I’ve been at the farm for about half a year now, and the Lane family has embraced me and pushes me to strive for excellence. So instead of just learning about planting and putting seeds in the ground, I’m also learning about water rights and land rights. As a Navajo, I feel it’s my duty to pass this information on. So, lately we’ve been partnering with one of the schools nearby called Navajo Prep. Navajo Prep is a high school and they come to the farm sometimes and we teach them about planting, and they help out on the farm. I also go to the school and teach students about how to utilize foods once it comes out of the ground. We do some food demonstrations with the students. 

It’s been a long journey realizing where I’m at right now. I feel that the work we’re doing right now is pretty important because there’s not a lot of people my age, or even younger, in our area doing anything about actually embracing our culture and embracing the history and actually trying to spread that knowledge. I tell the students all the time, “I hope to spark interest in at least one of you to someday take on the role of farming and agriculture.” There’s a lot of Navajo land that’s either being under-utilized or not utilized at all, and it’s been a long journey coming to where my passion is right now. I still lead some fine dining dinners, which keeps me fed as a chef, but I’m also feeding my soul in another area by teaching the youth and learning here on the farm so I can pass on that knowledge. In the future, I really hope to have a Pioche Food Group Farm, so I can hire Navajos and teach them how to farm. 

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting indigenous food systems? 
To me, the word “Indigenous” gets thrown around too loosely. It is not just a marketing term or catch phrase. It means something to a lot of people and represents what we as Native Americans are fighting for. I can only speak for myself as a Navajo person, but I believe that you must “walk the walk” if you’re going to “talk the talk.” I’ve learned that if someone wants to be more involved in the community, then they should do just that. Find where help is needed in your area. If someone needs help farming and taking care of their water and foods, get out there and help. Get your hands dirty! As Natives, we should be sticking together and making sure our communities are taken care of. For example, we’ve hosted dinners that fed our local first responders in our area. We always tell people that if they are hurting for food at all, to let us know, and we will make sure they are taken care of and fed.  

Anything else to add? 
I feel, as a Navajo, if we are unable to feed our own people, we are not truly a ‘sovereign nation.’ I may get some heat for saying that, but I feel it is true. Some may not want to believe it, but I live here on the reservation and I see it every day. Yes, we do have food drives here and there, but I wonder why we can’t have more fresh food that was grown on Navajo land instead of always asking for handouts. Why can’t we have more Navajo owned and operated farms that take care of our people? We have so much potential that is not being utilized.  

That is something I think should be addressed. 

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