TULSA – Cherokee Nation citizen and chef Nico Albert is the owner of Burning Cedar Indigenous Foods, a catering and food consulting business.
Through it and her study of indigenous foods, she creates recipes based on traditional ingredients and consults with organizations that want to create healthier menus based on tribally sourced food.
“I cater traditional and modern indigenous foods for different events,” said Albert. “Then I also do consulting. For instance, I’ve just consulted on the menu at the Kawi Café in Tahlequah to introduce some indigenous ingredients and indigenous dishes to the menu and revamp it in a healthy way. I also do demonstrations of traditional foods and demonstrations of how to forage different foods around here, and just talk in general about food sovereignty and the ways our diet has changed and the ways that we can feel better by eating more traditional foods.”
After moving to Oklahoma in 2003, Albert sought ways to culturally connect to her heritage, and that was through food. She initially attended wild onion and Indian taco dinners, wanting to learn more about why these meals were important to Cherokees.
“It was really important to me to learn to make all of those foods to really feel connected and be able to reconnect to my heritage to these meals that I was enjoying,” she said. “So I learned how to make all of these different things and it just expanded from there and started being able to forage for different ingredients and I loved learning about everything that had to do with our traditional foods, how we can make modern food out of those things and move our cuisine forward into the future.”
Albert has been in the restaurant business since she was a teen, working her way up to chef and learning everything from how to run a restaurant and creating menus.
When COVID-19 closed restaurants and she was laid off from her job, Albert put to use what she had learned and shared about indigenous foods and turned it into a business.
“I was working in restaurants in Tulsa in a separate way,” she said. “That was my professional life, and then I had my passion in my own personal life where I was doing all of this cultural work and spending time in the Indian community and going to powwows and learning all of these different foods from all of these different tribes and incorporating that into the foods that I was making, and people started approaching me about cooking foods for their events. So I would do that on the side while also running restaurants.”
She said she is continually learning about the foods and plants that Cherokees ate and turning it into modern cuisine. A starter menu can be found at burningcedar.com.
“I have a sample menu up there that’s kind of the starting point,” she said. “That menu incorporates some very traditional foods that are ancient recipes that we’ve been making exactly like our ancestors would have eaten them, like Cherokee bean bread or even like that corn soup that I have on there, which is more like a Northern Plains recipes that I got from husband’s family. They’re Ponca, Otoe and Iowa. So I’ve a lot of those influences on the menu too.”
She said there are also modern recognizable items on the menu that people identify as Native, including fry bread and grape dumplings.
“Then there’s more modern things that are kind of a blend of all of that, incorporating all the years of my restaurant experience with that, so there will be things like a whipped butterbean dip that comes on a blue corn pone as an hors d’oeuvres,” she said. “That’s definitely not something that our ancestors ate, that’s something that’s like fancy hors d’oeuvres but it uses our traditional ingredients.”
She also showcases pre-European contact food that contains no wheat, dairy, beef, chicken or pork. “All of those things came with colonization, so those foods aren’t traditional foods. So they want a menu that’s made with purely traditional ingredients that our ancestors would have used before colonization. And I can definitely do that.”
Albert said she continues to learn about traditional foods to stay connected to her heritage. “I said before I think it’s a really great way to connect with people and understand people. I love making connection with people through the type of food that they enjoy. So I’ve just been able to learn all kinds of different food that was really inspiring to me and it felt like a really good way, like a language that I could speak.”
Visit burningcedar.com or follow Burning Cedar Indigenous Foods on social media for information.