Chef Pyet DeSpain talks Native American cuisine and Thanksgiving

Chef Pyet DeSpain has Mexican and Native American roots and says the art of cooking from both cultures has been lost. But the Senior Level Leader The Season 1 winner is working to change that. (Photo: Piet DeSpain)

Chef Stephanie “Pyet” DeSpain grew up surrounded by culinary entrepreneurs, but her interest in becoming a chef herself came later in life. “I grew up with people who were passionate about cooking,” she told Yahoo Life. “Two of my uncles owned restaurants in Kansas City. My grandmother was a baker. My mother’s adoptive father loved to cook. Her biological father was a hunter. They would say it’s a good life skill to have the chance to cook something for yourself and your family.”

Although the influences are present, DeSpain, whose nickname comes from her inherited Native American name Pyetwetmokwe, says she planned to major in marketing in college. “I was really determined to be someone who worked in corporate America,” she shares. “I had this image of me going to work with a briefcase and a little pencil skirt. To me, that was the image of success. That’s who I strived to be.”

When she went to college, however, her vision of who she wanted to be changed. DeSpain realized that she had an interest in cooking, and the rest was history. Today, she is known as the winner of Season 1 of Senior Level Leader, where she was judged and mentored by iconic chefs Nyesha Arrington, Richard Blais and Gordon Ramsay. Cooking Contest Season 2 airs after Super Bowl LVII on Fox, and with his new status as a celebrity chef, DeSpain, who has Mexican and Native American roots, is bringing attention to cherished recipes from both cultures.

DeSpain with Next Level Chef judges Nyesha Arrington, Gordon Ramsay and Richard Blais.  (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)

DeSpain with Senior Level Leader judges Nyesha Arrington, Gordon Ramsay and Richard Blais. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)

DeSpain says being able to represent both of his heritages is an emotional experience. “For me, it’s a very moving experience to represent them both proudly,” she says. “We’re in a modern age where we’re not only trying to honor who we are today, but also honoring our ancestral foods and representing who we are.”

“There are so many things that have been lost,” she adds. “So many people don’t know what traditional Native American or Mexican foods are. I love being able to show people how to use modern techniques and modern cooking methods to honor ancient foods.”

A passion for teaching history and culinary skills are what fuel DeSpain’s work. “I traveled to different indigenous communities and gave them all the opportunity to get to know me,” she says. “I went on TV and said I wanted to represent them – but how can I do that if I don’t give them the chance to know me? I visited and helped in any way I could, whether it’s going to Boys and Girls Clubs [of America] or go to their classrooms and share my journey with them. I also just got my first cookbook deal, and with this cookbook I plan to shed light on not just myself and my tribe, but multiple tribes across the United States.”

Part of two cultures that are often warped in history and during the holidays, DeSpain shares that she doesn’t feel too negative about Thanksgiving. “I love getting together with my friends and family,” says the 31-year-old. “The fact that people can take time off from work and get together is great. I watch [Thanksgiving] the opportunity to get together with the family and share a meal. It’s probably one of the few times of the year when families can do that, so I still celebrate it.”

“If Thanksgiving was never a holiday, it wouldn’t be a teaching subject for people,” she continues. “People might not even be talking about Native Americans if it hadn’t been for Thanksgiving.”

Interested in learning firsthand how DeSpain blends his Native American and Mexican heritage? The chef shares a holiday rice recipe below.

Wild rice with duck fat with mushrooms and poblanos

Courtesy of the chef Piet DeSpain

(Photo: Pete DeSpain)

(Photo: Pete DeSpain)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup wild rice

  • 3 tablespoons duck fat

  • 1 tablespoon of thyme

  • 2 cups of vegetable broth

  • 2 ounces baby Portobello mushrooms, sliced

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

  • 1/2 tsp sea salt

  • 2 roasted garlic cloves, crushed

Instructions:

Prepare the cities:

  1. Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, begin peeling the blackened skin from the peppers one at a time. You can also remove the seeds and stems at this time. Cut the peppers into medium-sized dice. You can brown the peppers in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.

  2. Once the peppers are completely charred, place them in a heatproof bowl and cover with a lid, the steam from the peppers will soften the outer skins, making them easy to peel later. Set the bowl aside and let cool.

  3. Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, begin peeling the blackened skin from the peppers one at a time. You can also remove the seeds and stems at this time. Cut the peppers into medium-sized dice.

Prepare the rice:

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt 1/2 tablespoon duck fat.

  2. Add the thyme and sauté for 1 minute.

  3. Add the wild rice, toss well to coat. Stir occasionally for 1 minute to lightly toast the rice.

  4. Add the vegetable broth, bring to a simmer and reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 20 to 35 minutes.

  5. In a skillet over medium heat, melt 1/2 tablespoon duck fat, add 1/4 diced onion, sauté until the onions become translucent.

  6. Add mushrooms, diced poblanos, salt and pepper and sauté for 5 minutes.

  7. Add the garlic and stir for 2 minutes.

  8. Mix sautéed vegetables in a pot of rice.

  9. Finish the rice by adding the remaining duck fat and stir into the rice, mixing all the vegetables, rice and duck fat.

  10. Serve hot.

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