In summer's copper twilight, Apache chef Nephi Craig collects wild tea from the foothills of Arizona’s White Mountains, just as he has every year since he was a boy. Like generations of Apache before him, Craig gathers it in a deliberate, contemplative way—careful never to pull it up by the roots, so it will grow back. For centuries, Apache have steeped these tawny stalks to brew a reddish-orange drink that helps cure colds and connects their people to the traditions of their ancestors. But Craig uses wild tea and other foraged flora to create a different kind of link—one between this isolated corner of Native American country and the wider culinary world.
As he fills his basket, Craig climbs to 10,000 feet, an elevation from which he can take in the peaks and valleys of the mountain range where Apache have always collected, cooked and eaten the plants they found. Finally, he reaches Summit Restaurant at the Sunrise Park Resort Hotel, where he uses foraged ingredients in his remarkable tasting menus—his pioneering take on Native American cuisine.
Cooking with a sense of place and with wild ingredients from the surrounding landscape are principles the 34-year-old Craig shares with proponents of the New Nordic movement, led by René Redzepi at Copenhagen’s Noma. Foraging may be a new idea for many chefs, but it is an ancient Native American practice. “When I was a kid, no one called this foraging,” Craig says. “Instead, I was told, ‘This is tea; those are sumac berries.’ It was natural.” But Craig credits the New Nordic movement with the growing interest in Native cuisine. Blaine Wetzel, for instance, a chef who worked at Noma, depends on Native tradition for the menu at his Washington state restaurant, The Willows Inn, on Lummi Island. “The island has unique edible plants,” Wetzel says. “The indigenous people here know which ones to eat and when to eat them.”