I wanted to visit the Sunrise Park Resort after I started learning about Native food and about White Mountain Apache chef, Nephi Craig.
So, one summer day, I decided to just do it.
I packed up in my little car, grabbed my boyfriend and we headed to Greer, Arizona. In just three and half hours, we went from our New Mexico desert in Albuquerque to a lush and green forest that hid an old and empty hotel. Summertime at the hotel is not very lively because most folks visit to ski the Sunrise slopes in the winter. You also can’t just show up and expect Chef Craig to be cooking up a regular menu of traditional Apache foods. You have to call way ahead of time, or organize a special dinner or event with him.
I planned my visit on the day the Arizona Mushroom Society had their annual dinner and meeting. Chef Craig prepared a 12-course dinner and invited me behind the curtain. And it was a treat.
As soon as I stepped into the kitchen, it was hot and loud. Fans were on, things were sizzling and Craig was handing out orders to his sous chef and two line cooks, who tried to keep up.
Craig moved quickly through the kitchen, but he was delicate and careful with all the ingredients, most of which were local and came from Ndéé Bikiyáá, the People’s Farm, on the White Mountain Apache reservation.
On this day, he invited several teenage volunteers from the farm to help in the kitchen. Some were preparing berries and others were washing dishes. Craig was patient and careful with them too, thankful for the work they put into this dinner as well.
“Say, ‘behind you’ when you’re walking behind someone,” Craig said to me. It was one of a few sentences he had time to share with me that night.
The kitchen was small with 10 people running around and I believe I did my best to stay out of the way. At least I didn’t knock anything over or smear anything.
It seemed like every 5 to 15 minutes, 40 small servings of a specific menu item went out the door to the Society people. Most dishes were very intricate.
“Here, try this,” Craig said as he handed a small fritter to me. “It’s Apache cornbread.” And it’s a balance of sweet and savory with a thin crispy crust. Craig gave me another one topped with Three Sisters salad and cured salmon. That was the one of the best things I had all year. The fresh vegetables, mixed with the cornbread and salty salmon was a perfect combination of salty, sweet and the textures mixed well, too; crisp, mushy, crunchy and meaty.
Here are some photos from my time in the kitchen with more dishes I tried.
I spent more than three hours with Apaches in The Kitchen. Every second of it, I wanted to get in there and help. I wanted to get my hands in the squash blossom batter and the wild rice salad. It looked fun flipping over little Apache cornbreads and tossing seasoned butter over little rabbit rib racks. I can see why Craig does this for a living. He runs that kitchen how he wants and what comes out of it shows he respects food and the people who eat it.