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  • Writer's pictureKara Marselle

Chicago chef teaches Native American culture through traditional cuisine

BY JAMAICA PONDER - DECEMBER 1, 2023 / 11:13 AM CST / CBS CHICAGO

CHICAGO (CBS) -- For this Foodie Friday, we're keeping it hyper-local by giving you a look into contemporary Native American cuisine and meeting the chef bringing it to offices and dining halls across the city. The stream's Jamaica Ponder has more.

Chicago sits on the traditional, unceded homelands of the council of the three fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi nations. Many other tribes also know this area as their ancestral homelands such as the Ho'chunk, Miami, Menominee, Sac, and Fox. So, you really can't get much more local than this.


One Chicago chef, Jessica Walks First of the Menominee tribe, centers her work of education through food, so when she gets a call to cater an event, it always comes with an extra side of culture.

"Good food doesn't have to be complicated. It doesn't have to have complex ingredients. It just has to be wholesome, you know, simple, and that's what indigenous foods are," Walks First said.


Chef Jessica Walks First is gearing up for her ninth and final kitchen Station Takeover for Native American Heritage Month. On Thursday, she went to the University of Chicago.


"Basically, I come in, take over a station in the kitchen, produce an indigenous menu, and we also bring like a cultural element to it, so they're not just getting just food, they're getting education and an experience along with it," she said.

Her pop-up kitchen and catering company, Ketapanen Kitchen, brings in drummers, dancers, and indigenous speakers.


"When they walk away, they have a really good understanding of our culture, our presence in the mainstream, and our role here in Chicago as urban natives," Walks First said.


She was born on the Menominee Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin. When her family moved to the city, she joined one of the largest urban Indian populations in the country.

"Chicago has a very vast native community, over 100,000 native people here," Walks First said. "It's funny like, when you're coming from the reservation, you're Menominee, but when you're here with a group of diverse native people, you're indigenous, you're native," She said.

Chef Walks First uses food as a catalyst for conversation and a tool for cultural preservation.


"Sharing my culture through food, I feel it's so important because there's so many pieces of our history that are missing and absent, and it's up to us as native people who do the work to fill in the gaps in education," she said. "Using our platforms to share our voice and bring awareness is so important. That's how we garner support. That's how we forge bonds and create allyships and friendships, so if I can do that through food, then I'm winning. In our culture, food is a sacred thing, you know, and it's a centerpiece of everything that we do."

And it goes beyond just subsistence - food can be a medicine.


"So by sharing that good medicine, you put a good meal in front of them, they begin to talk, they begin to connect, they forge those bonds," she said.

That's why, when you call in Chef Walks First, you should expect her to stay around for a while.

"I'm really telling a story of indigenous history through food," she said.

With that story, trailblazing a new path.


"That no native chef has walked down before here in Chicago, and I want to do it to make it easier for other native chefs to come behind me and have those doors already open," Walks First said.

She and her Ketapanen Kitchen aren't only running programming and catering during Native American Heritage Month and not just through large events. All year round, you can order their meal kits from Well Social. The site has them delivered to your door for you to enjoy at home.


You can learn more about chef walks first at ketapanenkitchen.com.


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