Indigenous chef ready to share native cuisine with Chicagoans


CHICAGO — At Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, local school kids and adults are getting a lesson like never before about the culinary ins and outs of traditional and modern Indigenous cuisine.

Not long ago, Chicago was home to the Native Americans of the Potawatomie Tribe.

Executive Chef Walks First, owner of the Ketapanen Kitchen, is spearheading the effort to share her ancestral people’s recipes and culture. A citizen of Wisconsin’s Menominee Tribe, she grew up hundreds of miles away in a city she often felt culturally isolated.

“I grew up with that in Chicago where my culture was not part of the landscape,” Walks First said. “When you grow up and you don’t see anything of yourself around you, it’s hard.”

Often, history was taught from a one-sided point of view, Walks First added.

“Every battle that the soldiers won was an epic battle. Anytime we won, it was a massacre,” Walks First said.

These days, the alumnus of Whitney Young High School and classically trained graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, Walks First has made it her life’s mission to share the recipes of her ancestors.

“My mom started teaching me how to cook when I was like five or six, so with my family going into kitchens with other women and other family members learning those recipes,” Walks First said. “We don’t go through a book to get those recipes, we got into somebody’s kitchen and they’re taught to us.”

As Native Americans were forced off their lands decades ago, traditional fare of certain regions were blended, she says.

“We became more of an inter-tribal people and we started sharing recipes, sharing ceremonies, and sharing pieces of our culture, whatever we were able to retain,” Walks First said.

Through the offerings of her catering business, she blends nourishment of body and spirits. As she cooks, she includes healthy portions of good feelings in her heart and a dash of Native American prayers.

“It’s not about one region or one person’s dishes or one person’s tribe’s dishes; it’s about reclaiming all of these foods as traditional Indigenous food,” Walks First said.

Today, Walks First has teamed up with the Trotter Project, named after the world-famous culinary master Charlie Trotter, who died suddenly in 2013.

“Charlie Trotter was my hero and here I am with the Trotter Project and I got to meet Charlie’s sister, and ironically Charlie Trotter and my son share the same birthday,” she said. “I was like, ‘it’s in the stars.’”

Chicago is also home to the nation’s most prominent Indigenous population in the United States.

“Chicago boasts the largest urban Indian community in the country. Over 100,000 native people in Chicagoland area,” First said. “For us, it’s about preserving those foods but also learning about them. A lot of people still don’t really understand their own traditional foods. I’m still learning about my own traditional Menominee foods.”

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