Having devoured all the Tony and Ann Hillerman books centered in and around the Navajo Nation, I thought I knew quite a bit about the Diné. That was until Brian Schwartz, an extraordinary food writer from Oklahoma, offered me his ticket to an event showcasing the talents of James Beard Best Chef – Southwest nominee Justin Pioche. I immediately took stock of just what I knew about Navajo culinary traditions. I knew the Navajo are widely credited with the “invention” of fry bread during their brutal internment at Bosque Redondo. History taught me that lush Navajo peach orchards were destroyed during a scorched earth campaign by Kit Carson. I knew from personal experience that Navajo cooks prepare the best mutton I’ve ever had. I also surmised that Navajo cooks and chefs held very true to culinary traditions and ingredients, many of which were adopted by New Mexicans.
My lack of knowledge of Navajo culinary culture and traditions having been revealed, I lept at Brian’s kind invitation. Besides the curious appellation “LorAmy” just beckoned for further discovery. Neither a Navajo culinary tradition or a culinary term, LorAmy is a Farmington pop-up dining series from Diné chef Justin Pioche of the Pioche Food Group. The name is a combination of the chef’s grandmothers’ first names, fitting considering the matrilineal traditions of the Navajo. Lorene is his mother’s mother’s name and Amy is his father’s mother’s name. At a table set for twelve, Chef Pioche presents a varying seasonal menu (usually around 8 courses), inspired by his Navajo culture. Unexpected palate-pleasing twists and turns are sure to please you as the Pioche family puts their hearts on a plate.
Family is at the heart of the Pioche Food Group, an innovative Navajo owned and operated food service company. At the Chef’s right hand is his baby sister, the effervescent and beautiful Tia. She’s the face of the the Pioche Food Group, the front-of-the-house personality who orchestrates each events’ proceedings. She describes her relationship with her big brother as “best friend, room mate, business partner and co-conspirator.” Naabeehó sáanii (Navajo women) are the center of the family, the keepers of wisdom and conservators of ancestral teachings. This would become increasingly obvious to me during the evening as I was seated with three of Chef Justin and Tia’s aunts and shared a delightful conversation with their mother Janice, youthful looking enough to pass for their sister.
No strangers to adversity or to surmounting challenges, the Pioche family lived in Phoenix in an east-facing apartment with no air conditioning. Tia credits their dirt poor existence with their humility and resilience. When the family returned to the Farmington area, learning to cook became a necessity for Justin. Both parents worked, so when he came home from school, he would make simple meals for his younger siblings. He began his culinary career at 17, working at Francisca’s, a Mexican restaurant in Farmington. After a demotivating experience at the Central New Mexico Community College, Justin almost gave up on pursuing a career as a chef. Fortunately Janice continued to steer him in the direction of a degree in culinary arts from the Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale.
After graduating in 2014, Justin started what would become a burgeoning culinary career that will certainly not culminate with being nominated for a prestigious James Beard award. In fine dining restaurants helmed by celebrated chefs Beau MacMillan and Kevin Binkley, he was inspired to innovate while learning the business aspects of restaurant management. Chef Binkley emphasized “everything on the plate should serve a purpose, and not just be there for aesthetics,” a lesson took to heart. Moving back to Upper Fruitland, he worked at chain restaurants in Farmington, a disheartening experience which didn’t stretch his talents. Offered an opportunity to take an excursion to Israel, Justin started hosting pop-up dinners to raise money for his trip. Upon his return, he and Tia decided to continue hosting pop-up dinners in the Four Corners area. Thus the Pioche Food Group was born.
In addition to periodic pop-up dinners, The Pioche Food Group owns and operates a food truck. Four corners locals at our table shared that it’s the very best food truck in the Farmington area and–in at least three cases–was the reason some of those locals signed up for the LorAmy event. Within the vast expanse of the Navajo Nation are two farms in which Justin works and innovates, developing new ways to grow crops consistent with Navajo foodways. He periodically invites high school students work on the farm to learn these farming techniques. At other times, he takes promising students to Phoenix and mentors them in “fine dining” techniques. He recruited one group of students to help prepare a charity dinner for hundreds of guests. Justin champions the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), a workforce development nonprofit that provides underserved teens a pathway to success.
The exclusive LorAmy Valentine’s Day Dining Experience I attended took place on February 10th at the Juniper Coffee & Eatery on College Blvd. Juniper is itself a Native owned restaurant earning acclaim. I was immediately smitten by the charming Tia who greeted me at the door. In that I was the only unaccompanied guest, she seated me next to her three aunts and one uncle. As is usually the case when you’re seated at a community table with people you don’t know, conversation was initially guarded and mostly of the small-talk variety. It wasn’t long before the ice was broken and we laughed like long-lost friends. Justin’s and Tia’s aunts regaled me with stories of their talented nephew and beautiful niece. They gave me a better education about Navajo culture than Tony and Ann Hillerman have.
Each place setting on the table was resplendent with generously poured champagne flutes courtesy of Wines of the San Juan. For those of us who don’t imbibe adult beverages, sparkling cider and water were provided. Flutes and glasses were faithfully replenished throughout the evening along with an introduction of wines paired with each dish. Lit candles were further illuminated by unique glass candle holders reminiscent of major league baseball’s commissioner’s trophy. A single heart-shaped gelee (a French term for a jelly-like food) was placed on a small glass platform. Justin and Tia introduced the evenings proceedings followed by Justin delivering a blessing.
Our first course was a Navajo tea made with chrysanthemum and maple sugar. Regular readers might know that tea in all its forms and manifestations is the only “food” I don’t like, but I was determined to drink it all even if it meant one big swig. Thankfully, that single gelee was intended as a palate cleanser after drinking down the tea. As tea goes, it wasn’t bad, but I don’t believe I’ll be giving up my beverage of choice (water) any time soon.
Our second course was a beet salad (Mountain Rose apples, basil, radish, strawberry, pine nut vinaigrette). The Mountain Rose apples, a unique heirloom variety grown only in the Hood River Valley of Oregon, surprised everyone at our table. We all wondered if they had been doctored to give them their unique coloring, a shade of red-pink blush. Imbued with the aroma of strawberries and a slightly sweet and mildly tart flavor, they were a huge hit. So were the earthy beets with their pronounced purplish-red coloring and floral flavor with a hint of sweetness. As with every plate with which we were presented, there was no one ingredient that didn’t serve a purpose and that didn’t delight our taste buds.
Justin explained the importance of the three sisters (corn, squash and bean) to the Navajo culture, enlightening us on symbiotic growing methods that bring out the best in all three when planted together. Growing tall and lush, the corn plant shields low-lying squash from the hot sun. In honor of that culinary triumvirate, his next course was fittingly called Three Sisters (corn and bean ragout, squash blossom, amaranth, sunflower oil). Employing molecular gastronomy techniques, Justin transformed the liquefied sunflower oil into a fine, powdery form. That was just one of several surprises. The squash blossom was filled with a corn and bean ragout that showcased all three sisters working deliciously together. For me, the corn niblets were very reminiscent of corn steamed in an horno.
Reminiscent of a Georgia O’Keefe painting of flowers (without the sensuality) is the chanterelle tart (foie gras, black trumpets, nasturtiums, mandarin quats, thyme). Using the term umami to describe foods with mushrooms is probably cliche, but in this case so very accurate. Foie gras has a “beefy” rich and creamy flavor that pairs magnificently with chanterelles. Among mushrooms, chanterelles have a unique flavor in that they have discernible fruity notes and an aroma similar to apricots. Tia, whose main interests are in the hospitality side, baked the crusty tart. Nasturtiums are not only beautiful flowers, they actually possess a light peppery flavor.
Although everyone at our table enjoyed every course, perhaps the one course eliciting the most enthusiasm was the sunchoke and chips (kale, prosciutto, hazelnut raisins). Only a few of us had ever had sunchokes in any manner. Also known as Jerusalem Artichokes (even though they’re neither from Jerusalem or from the artichoke family), sunchokes are actually the root of a species of sunflower plant which grows in New England. When baked into chips, they have an addictive, slightly sweet and earthy flavor. Sunchokes do not store starch. As such, they do not impact the body’s blood sugar level, which is great for those on a low “carb” diet. While sunchoke chips were the biggest hit, the crispy kale was also well received. Raisins offer a delightfully sweet contrast.
Intermezzo, an Italian term which means “a brief interlude or diversion” was next. Justin filled a heart-shaped shot glass with frozen blood orange. The shot glass had a quince rim, similar in principle but not taste to the salt on the rim of a margarita. Much as we may have wanted to slowly savor this refreshing palate cleanser, it was so good most of us downed it quickly. The quince rim was a nice tough. Unless cooked, quince can be very astringent, a quality which would not have been as greatly appreciated as the sweet, vanilla-like quince rim we licked off the glass.
Even the Tony Hillerman Portal contends that “fry bread is a result of Navajo contact with white settler colonial practices, specifically during their 1864 internment at Fort Sumner after their forced Long Walk from their traditional homelands near Canyon de Chelly, Arizona to the Bosque Redondo location of Fort Sumner in the Pecos River Valley in New Mexico.” The untold history is much more bleak. Tia explained the tragic story of Navajos dying of gastric distress from consuming wheat flour to which the Diné were not accustomed. Because the Navajo were not given pots and pans, they did not “invent” fry bread at the Bosque Redondo (but they would later on). They mixed flour with Pecos River water and consumed the resultant mixture, a sure invitation to dysentery or worse.
Justin’s reinterpretation of fry bread was much more palatable. Most of us think of fry bread as a plate-sized disk of shortening, flour and salt fried in grease or oil. Instead of the stereotyped disk-shaped fry bread (which Health magazine ranks as one of the fifty most unhealthy foods in the country), we were presented a dense orb more reminiscent of a “donut hole” than fry bread. It didn’t taste like a donut hole. It tasted like maybe the best fry bread we’ve ever had as confirmed by oohs and aahs a plenty. Fry bread was one component of the Steamed Corn Stew (fry bread, lamb, smoked salt), maybe not even the best. My favorite was the lamb presented in smaller than bite-sized pieces. If you associate lamb with gaminess, you’ll be surprised at just how mellow and delicious it can be when prepared by a chef-genius.
Tia’s culinary prowess was on display on the bread course (tortillas, blue corn, ramp butter, cilantro flour). She’s no slouch on the kitchen. Her tortillas reminded me of my sainted Grandma Andreita’s tortillas. Thicker and more dense than most tortillas, they just begged for butter and Tia provided among the best, most herbacious butter of my experience–a soft, easy-to-spread ramp butter. She described ramps as coming from the same family as onions and garlic, tasting very similar to a combination of the two. Also on the plate was a single blue corn muffin as thick, dense, moist and delicious as you can imagine.
The main course of the evening was braised beef cheeks (charred leeks, marinated roe, sorrel, huitlacoche). Beef cheeks are highly esteemed by high-end chefs (think Michelin-starred restaurants) for their robust flavor and unique texture. Rich and savory with a soft, mouthfeel, they’re so tender you can cut them with a spoon or fork. Beefy notes permeate their essence. Justin’s mastery of slow-cooking techniques brings out the very best qualities of braised beef cheeks. Few beef dishes have wowed me as much. Ever! Justin also managed to transform huitlacoche (corn smut) from its native mushroom-like texture to a liquefied gravy form. It enhanced the flavor of the beef cheeks even further. Huitlacoche is one of my favorite foods in the universe. Tobiko eggs (fish roe) delighted the Pioche aunts who’d never had anything like it.
When it came time for the dessert course, some of us became melancholy in realizing the night would soon be over. To no surprise, the dessert course was also something with which few of us were acquainted, an ube ice cream (caramelized honey, coconut two ways, lime). Though often referred to as purple sweet potatoes, ube are yams with a dark, rough-looking skin. Ground into a powder, they are often used in Filipino desserts characterized by their bright purple color. Kudos to Justin for creating one of the most unique ice cream, one that captures the flavor essence of ube, a rich sweet taste with vanilla notes. Just as delightful as the ice cream was the caramelized honey, deep and rich in color and as intensely flavored as honey from a comb.
When the event ended, no one was in a hurry to leave. Twelve people came together as strangers and left as friends. That’s the power of great food and a fabulous event orchestrated by a wonderful family. From experiential and culinary standpoints, this was a stand-out event, one which should be shared with people you love.