DOWNTOWN — A boundary-breaking Indigenous chef has been selling out of her tamales, pulled bison and other dishes during a pop-up at the Field Museum — and she’s planning a food truck and permanent restaurant next.
Chef Walks First, also known as Jessica Paemonekot, operates Ketapanen Kitchen 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily at the museum through Wednesday as part of Native American and Indigenous Heritage Month.
Some of the dishes often sell out by midday, so the Field is looking at how to keep them on its menu even after the pop-up ends, said J. Kae Good Bear, the museum’s conservation cultural liaison. But the pop-up is just part of a growing empire for the chef.
Walks First is Chicago’s first Native American executive chef. She attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago before its closure, but her earliest culinary education was from cooking with her mother.
Walks First said those early experiences led her prefer “cooking for an army” over assembling a dinner for two.
“For Native people, cooking and sharing meals and food itself is part of everything we do,” Walks First said. “When you grow up in a communal setting, there’s lots of events. And anytime we’d go to these events, I would go in the kitchen and help. It’s always been second nature to me.”
Walks First, a member of the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, started Ketapanen Kitchen, her catering business, seven years ago. Ketapanen has since “exploded,” she said, and she plans to develop a food truck and permanent establishment.
Though Walks First loves cooking, educating people about Native culture and food was also a central motivation to launching her business, she said.
“You live in Chicago, where there’s representation of every ethnicity, but there’s very minimal Native representation, and there was zero in the culinary industry,” she said. “I knew right then and there, that is what I needed to do.”
Though Chicago houses the country’s largest urban native community — with more than 100,000 Indigenous people residing in the area — Walks First said people are seldom aware of Indigenous people’s influence on the city.
“There are foods that most people eat every day [that] they do not realize are Indigenous things, like carrots, squash, various nuts and berries,” Walks First said.
Through her Seed to Feed Native Foods Initiative, the chef is working to raise $15,000 on GoFundMe to connect Native people with their foods and educate all Chicagoans on Indigenous culture. On the outreach side, Walks First has been staging dining hall “kitchen takeovers” at local universities, featuring her dishes and showcasing local Native performance groups.
“I’ve grown up in the Chicago American Indian community for over 40 years, so I have established relationships in the community with a lot of people,” she said. “The emcee that I use, I’ve grown up with them. The dancers that I used, I watched them grow up.”
Good Bear — who belongs to the Diné (Navajo), Mandan and Hidatsa nations — said residents have turned out consistently for Ketapenan’s pop-up.
Though Walks First is a pioneer as a Native executive chef in Chicago, Good Bear said she hopes Ketapenan’s success is indicative of a larger resurgence of Chicago’s Indigenous culture. Many of the city’s early Native residents were forced to turn away from tradition and culture to assimilate into the city and “survive,” she said.
“There was a gap where it wasn’t OK to be Native. You couldn’t have your hair long, you couldn’t speak your language for a number of generations,” Good Bear said. “But now there is a resurgence for folks turning back to those cultural ways.”
During this month and beyond, Good Bear said she’s seen more people reconnecting with their heritage by donning regalia, sharing songs and stories and cooking traditional foods.
“Our bodies are healthier when they eat our Indigenous foods as opposed to processed foods introduced to us through colonization,” she said.
Walks First said she’s also seen a reemergence of Native culture in everything from local events to popular culture with shows such as “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls.”
Still, Walks First said she hopes people “don’t lose interest” in Indigenous culture and businesses after the end of the month.
“Whatever you are taught in schools is either insignificant, biased or downright lies. So as Native people, we’re building our own histories, and we’re filling in the blanks,” Walks First said. “Reach out to the organizations here, attend events, learn more about our contributions because they’re vast, but just don’t do it just in the month of November.”
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