‘Next Level Chef’ winner brings regenerative agriculture to the table

By Yetnaleci Maya, May 3, 2022

Embracing her roots and tapping into Indigenous practices, the winner of Gordon Ramsey’s “Next Level Chef” Season 1, Stephanie DeSpain, or Chef Pyet, explored regenerative agriculture with the campus community on April 21, for an Earth Day celebration.

The celebration was hosted by the Native American Student Center and John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies. DeSpain joined the campus community to talk about her experiences growing up in the Osage reservation in Oklahoma and how she combines her cultural upbringings with her cooking.

DeSpain’s Native American name is Pyetwetmokwe, hence her chef name, Pyet. Before her time on the show, she worked as a traveling private chef who focused on cooking Indigenous fusion cuisine.

Throughout the competition, Pyet found a new sense of identity as she stepped into the role of a spokesperson for the Indigenous community on national TV.

“It wasn’t until I was actually there in the midst of the competition that I started getting serious about it,” said Pyet. “The competitiveness in me was kind of like ‘No, if you’re going to be here then you better have something to say.’ Because I fought really hard to be a chef and to cook food that I’m passionate about so there was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass me without speaking my piece or utilizing this to strengthen my voice and other Indigenous chef’s voices in the culinary world.”

Following her success in the competition, she continued to focus on putting her culture’s touch into different culinary spaces, particularly on applying Indigenous methods for agriculture.

During her campus presentation, she focused on regenerative agriculture which involves land management practices that are meant to focus on the interconnectedness of farming and ecological systems.

Pyet presented the negative impacts of the current food system in the U.S., including over cropping and overconsumption which leads to food waste and unhealthy diets. Pyet stated that food production accounts for over 25% of global greenhouse emissions.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie DeSpain

As she continued to explain why Indigenous food systems would be a better alternative to the way agriculture is performed in the U.S., she focused on the benefits, such as biodiversity, when different kinds of foods are found in one area it allows for a functioning ecosystem, the protection of the world’s natural resources while providing food security and the understanding of nature and its cycles.

Growing up in a reservation, Pyet talked about how their diets would change based on the seasons and how this was beneficial to their well-being and health because the earth would provide them with nutritious food.

“Moving out of the reservation and moving into the city was a big drastic change because even just sourcing your groceries, the whole act itself was a lot different,” she explained. “In Oklahoma we had neighbors who would grow vegetables in their backyard. My grandma and I would go down the street and go buy tomatoes, or zucchini, or whatever it was that the person was growing, we would just buy it from them.”

Pyet was excited to share that one of her favorite dishes to make and enjoy was what she called the “three sisters tostada,” which resembled a piece of her Native American upbringing.

The legend of the three sisters is the native legend of how corn, beans and squash were cropped. These three crops are often known as the sustainers of life. The corn provides a ladder for the beans and the squash vines provide shade for the mound, all while supplying moisture in the soil for both the corn and beans. They work together to help each other grow. Pyet provided a description of her process making the three sisters tostada.

“It is beans, corn and squash and I do a cedar braised bean,” she said. “If I can’t braise it, I’ll smoke the beans with cedar, so it adds a different smokey element to it, then I mix it together into like a warm salad essentially. I also make an hoja santa and avocado cream sauce and I top it off with that. Then I put these pickled wild onions on top. The acidity from the pickled onions and the acidity and unctuousness from the sauce and the freshness of it with the meatiness of the beans and corn, all of it together in one bite is what junk food wishes it was.”

As she continues her journey after winning “Next Level Chef,” she is motivated by the support from different communities and wants to inspire indigenous chefs to step up to the plate.

“I’ve gotten a lot of support from people that were just really proud to see a Native American, Mexican-American girl on a Gordon Ramsey show just being herself and cooking food that they would be cooking for their families,” she said.

Feature image courtesy of Stephanie DeSpain

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