Chicago Chef Envisions a Culinary Industry Where Being an Indigenous Chef Isn’t An Anomaly
Jessica Pamonicutt is the owner and executive chef of the catering and pop-up business Ketapanen Kitchen. Image: Provided.
Jessica Pamonicutt was surprised when a family friend and the director of the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg called her up to ask her to cater an event. She told him she didn’t have a catering business.
“‘Well, now you do,’” Pamonicutt recalls him saying.
Pamonicutt is the owner and executive chef of the catering and pop-up business Ketapanen Kitchen, which specializes in indigenous ingredients and cuisine—a focus that is currently rare in Chicago and the rest of the United States.
“Chicago is a cultural mecca,” Pamonicutt says. “You can find cuisine from every ethnicity—except for people whose ancestral homelands these are.”
That’s something she’s hoping to change. Pamonicutt is an enrolled member of the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin and was born on the tribe’s reservation there. Her mother moved her family to Chicago by the time Pamonicutt was school-age. As soon as she could reach the stove as a child, her mother taught her how to cook. Pamonicutt says she never had plans to become a chef, but her husband saw promise in her cooking, and she enrolled in culinary school.
She launched Ketapanen Kitchen in November 2021, and she has big plans for its future. “Ketapanen” is a Menominee expression of love, and she learned at a young age to incorporate it into cooking.
“When I was growing up, my mother always taught me that when you feed people, you do it with love. You put all your good thoughts, good feelings, and prayers into everything that you cook because food not only nourishes your body, it nourishes your spirit,” she says. As far as she knows, Pamonicutt is one of the only indigenous chefs—perhaps the only—serving native cuisine in Chicago. While there are some Native American restaurants in the country, notably Owamni by The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis and Kai Restaurant in Phoenix, indigenous chefs are still underrepresented in the restaurant industry.
“I spoke to the president of the National Restaurant Association, and I talked to her about what I wanted to do, and she said, ‘That is a niche in the market that has not been cornered,’” Pamonicutt says.
So many people, Pamonicutt says, don’t realize that many of the foods they eat were core ingredients in native diets before European settlers disrupted them. Some are prominently featured on her menu: bison, wild rice, nuts, berries, corn, several fruits, herbs, squashes, beans, turkey, venison, and shrimp. (You can check out her recipe for traditional Menominee wild rice and berries here.)
One of her goals in expanding her business is to restore access to some of those ingredients for people living in Chicago.
“So many of us in the Chicago Indian community are at least hundreds of miles from our homelands, so sometimes getting those foods is difficult,” she says. “You’ve got to know somebody, or someone in your family has to get it and send it to you, or you pick it up when you visit home.”
Much like there is a story behind the name of her business, Pamonicutt says there are many stories behind native foods.
“Everything has a story, every food that we eat, where it grows—there's a story to it,” she says.
One such food is frybread, which is a flat, fried bread that was born out of the forced displacement of Native American peoples to reservations in the 19th century. Different variations of frybread have emerged in the decades since, but their origins are the same. “What [the United States government] did was issue us government commodities, since we no longer had access to hunt and fish and gather,” Pamonicutt explains.
“When you're given a bunch of foods you're not familiar with, what our crafty women did was they created frybread. It was a way to sustain ourselves with what we were given, and that was just a testament to our survival,” Pamonicutt says. “Yes, you may have taken away everything familiar, everything we know. You may have given us these unhealthy things, but we figured out a way to survive on them.”
Pamonicutt wants to share that history through food. One of her larger goals is to have an education initiative as part of her business. She’s been working with organizations like Pilot Light, the Field Museum, and the University of Illinois Chicago to put on educational programs about indigenous foods. For example, in one recent virtual workshop, she asked educators to make a plate from fifteen options using what they thought were indigenous foods.
“Maybe two of them put all of the items on the plate, and most of them didn’t recognize that every food on that list was indigenous,” she says.
As she looks towards the future of her business, Pamonicutt is hoping for a “fleet of food trucks” and a brick-and-mortar restaurant one day. But her dreams extend beyond herself. “I have a unique position where I can actually talk about these things and educate others and bring awareness,” she says, “and then open the doors for other native chefs behind me to come in and have a place in the culinary industry”—a male-dominated industry, she points out, where it’s hard to be a woman, and even harder to be a native woman.
“With food being so prominent in our culture, so many of us cook, and so many of us are great cooks. They could be these amazing chefs if they were given the right opportunities,” Pamonicutt says. “What I'm doing here in Chicago is creating some visibility because I would love to see a whole list of native chefs that are in Chicago. I would love to see restaurants in every city. That would be amazing.”