Chef Ryan Swanson puts a modern spin on ancient ingredients and techniques, leading the restaurant Kai to five-star ratings.
When The New Native American Cuisine first came out in 2009, it was one of just a few books about indigenous ingredients and cooking native to this country. Written by the chef team at the Sheraton’s Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Arizona, the book merges the history and culture of regional Native American cuisine with modern ideas, global cooking techniques, and the refined talent of chefs in luxury resort restaurants. It showcases dishes like grilled elk chop with truffles, sweet corn panna cotta with venison carpaccio, and buffalo tartare with prairie quail egg. The resort’s main restaurant, Kai, meaning seed in the language of the Pima tribe, has earned AAA’s five-diamond rating and Forbes’ five-star ranking.
Kai’s chef de cuisine Ryan Swanson, formerly the restaurant’s sous chef and a protégé of former head chef Joshua Johnson, who first led the restaurant to culinary achievement, continues his education about indigenous foods and cooking. Chef Swanson works closely with the Pima and Maricopa tribes of the greater Phoenix area, sourcing many locally farmed ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community as well as from local foragers—all to put his modern spin on indigenous cooking.
“I grew up down the road so I know about the culture and food, but just coming into work every day I’m constantly teaching myself and learning something new,” says Swanson, who has friends in the community and regularly visits with tribe members. “When I develop new dishes, I think about how much I can make the dish taste like what we can see outside our doors.”
While indigenous ingredients vary greatly by region of the country, foods in this Southwestern locale have vast diversity, naturally ranging from chilies and the pinyon, or pine nut, to wild game such as bison, goose, rabbit, and elk, to different types of cactus and corn, and many foraged plants, buds, and berries.
“My job is to represent the Pima and Maricopa tribes by bringing their cultures into our restaurant and incorporating many ingredients from the community,” Chef Swanson says, adding, “We also still forge our own identity with other global influences to give our diners a broader perspective.”
His goal—to bring the desert and native culture into the dining experience—begins with an appreciation of the people of the Pima and Maricopa tribes, who were and continue to be sophisticated farmers. “They planned very well, using the right amount of water to plant crops but not draining the rivers,” Swanson says. “They are very intuitive about how to prepare food simply so the ingredients shine, and that’s what I try to do in the restaurant. It’s a beautiful culture and community.”
Though Chef Swanson uses classic French and other cooking techniques garnered from his culinary training, which includes working under acclaimed chef Vincent Guerithault, winner of James Beard Best Chef: Southwest, he also incorporates native cooking techniques like braising, smoking, and drying.
He’s even had servers burn sage tableside to perk up the olfactory senses before serving one of the restaurant’s signature dishes—like the duo of goose rillettes served with hand-rolled, cracker-like bread made from local sorrel, puff amaranth, and chia seeds, and rabbit loin that’s been cooked sous vide, then served sliced atop a bed of pickled Pima wheat berries from a farm down the street.
He’s also known for his grilled tenderloin of tribal buffalo, simply grilled and served with a mesquite-smoked heirloom corn purée, cholla cactus buds lightly poached in an aromatic broth, and a garnish of saguaro blossom syrup, which resembles the type of caramelized sugar crystals you might find on a crème brûlée but which tastes more like a dark molasses.
Chef Swanson also works with heirloom farmers and seed savers to discover older indigenous foods that are harder to find, like the black tepary bean from nearby Ramona Farms. To showcase the bean’s natural meaty flavor, he simply poaches the beans with herbs and then uses them in a succotash with local corn and squash.
Swanson likewise favors the wolfberry, a local berry similar in taste to the superfood goji from Tibet. “There are 20 different species of wolfberry in Arizona, and eight just in our community,” he says, adding he has made jams and sauces with the berries and dried them for use as a whole garnish or powder.
As interest in cooking with indigenous ingredients grows, Chef Swanson encourages other chefs to work with licensed foragers in their region to make sure the finds are safe, and to source from tribal and heirloom farmers. “There is such a wealth of knowledge out there just waiting to be tapped into,” he says. “We’re just scratching the surface, and it’s exciting.”