When Dream Dance Steak, the high-end restaurant inside Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, hosts its annual Native American Heritage Dinner in November, the likely theme will be indigenous Hawaiian cuisine.
Should the Milwaukee restaurant secure the talents of the right Hawaiian chef, the seventh annual dinner would showcase the islands’ indigenous foods and preparations — well beyond the typical tourist fare of poi, pineapple and Kalua pork. The latter is famously produced during a two-day ritual that requires an entire pig to be prepared and then roasted while buried in the ground.
But the growing number of the restaurant’s Native cuisine fans won’t have to wait that long. Some of the most popular dishes from last fall’s Ojibwe Native American dinner menu and other Native ingredients will start appearing this spring on the regular menus of Dream Dance Steak and, to a lesser degree, The Fire Pit Sports Bar & Grill, thanks to both the talents and heritage of executive chef Mike Christensen.
Although a native of Chicago, Christensen is a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in northern Wisconsin. In addition to Native influences, he has 35 years of restaurant experience, a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and designation as a certified executive chef from the American Culinary Federation.
Dream Dance Steak chef Chase Anderson, another CIA graduate, also will lead the Native foods initiative. Although of Scandinavian heritage, Anderson spent much of his youth on the Oneida Nation reservation near Green Bay, where his mother worked.
The simple secret to Native cuisine, the chefs say, is to source food locally, prepare it naturally, buy from Native producers when possible and avoid foods that were not available before the colonization of the Americas.
Other than that, the familiar corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, herbs, honey, grasses, fish and wild game are right at home on Native menus. All of those ingredients, and countless others, originated in the Americas and are fair game for true Native dishes.
Anderson described Native cuisine as “the original Paleo diet,” a reference to the current fad diet that postulates that the only food that should be eaten is that which was around during the Paleolithic era, which began about 40,000 years ago.
“Just about every food group’s trend has been a return to basics, both in content and preparation,” Anderson says. “Native cuisine has been around even before written language was developed, and yet it’s rarely highlighted.”
“I like to focus on traditional foods and uses,” Christensen says, noting that Native tribes hunted, gathered and grew foods indigenous to their areas.
Foods that might appear in the diets of people from the Southwest, like different varieties of chili peppers, or salmon from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest were not familiar to Midwest and East Coast tribes. Native chefs tap these resources no matter where they’re cooking, though, with the idea that the foods were part of other tribes’ culinary heritage.
Christensen sources the walleye served at The Fire Pit from Red Lake Fishery, owned by the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. Other tribes in other parts of the country provide salmon and other foods as well. Although not yet well organized, a loose network of Native suppliers has been working together for some time, Anderson says.
Traditionally harvested wild rice
Wild rice, a Native food staple, is harvested traditionally in Minnesota and Wisconsin. However, Minnesota has developed more of an “industry” around its wild grain, which grows in lakes and ponds throughout the state. The resulting wild rice is less expensive and more plentiful than the Wisconsin variety.
Laws in both states require that wild rice be harvested by hand in the traditional fashion. That means two harvesters in a canoe or rowboat take to the lake in search of the crop, Christensen says.
One person, known as the “poler,” sits in the back of the vessel and powers it through the rice beds. The other person, known as the “knocker,” sits facing the poler and with a paddle or some other implement bends the long grass over the boat and knocks the grains from the plant into the boat.
It is understood that a percentage of that rice falls back into the water, Christensen says. The lost grains serve to seed the bed for the following year’s crop.
But that’s not all. Like any food crop, the nature of wild rice changes based on the growing environment, or terroir, surrounding it.
“Minnesota wild rice can be shiny black, while Wisconsin wild rice is a sort of greenish brown,” Christensen says. “I’ve also seen grains as long as an inch and some as short as a quarter-inch. It all depends on where they grow.”
Christensen uses both states’ rice in the dishes he prepares. Those include various fish dishes with rice, his preferred favorite, and wild-rice pudding. Both will appear on the spring menu.
Diners also can expect to find scallops with an Ojibwe succotash of squash, beans and corn — known as “The Three Sisters” in southwest Native cooking. They’ll also enjoy racks of locally sourced venison. Both dishes were popular during the previous season’s heritage dinner.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” Anderson says. “Chef Mike’s only been here a year and already is making significant changes. One day we hope to have an entirely Native American menu.”