ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He’s always been cooking, from feeding his brother during his childhood on Santa Clara Pueblo to making a feast for producer Steven Spielberg and friends over a coal fire at Bears Ears National Monument.
Ray Naranjo excelled as a chef at a young age, but it wasn’t until he turned to indigenous cooking that he found his calling – as a chef and as a person.
“I refer to my experience as a Native pueblo chef as my poeh (the path I walk),” says Naranjo, 41. “At times the journey is hard, and at times rewarding and at times humbling.”
Naranjo has been using indigenous foods and growing methods for a long time, but his new job as executive chef at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center will allow him to make such foods the focus of his menu.
The dishes at Pueblo Harvest will center on “an authentic pueblo experience based on what’s happening in the pueblo world,” with Naranjo’s “own modern twist on things.”
For example, he might offer a version of chicken and waffles, but “using all indigenous ingredients. Using rabbit, say, and non-European flours to make waffles – blue corn, amaranth flours. Using ash instead of baking powder to do the leavening.”
“The thing with me is I like to be simple,” Naranjo says. “I do a simple food that people eat every day. I try to do it well.”
Raised by a single mother who wasn’t often home, Naranjo started cooking because “if you’re the only two kids in the house … someone has to cook for you, so I had to be that person.”
He and his brother watched cooking shows on TV, but it wasn’t until Naranjo went to Arizona that he realized his skills could be turned into a profession.
“I didn’t really think of it as an industry because it wasn’t really an honored profession in my area,” he says. “People would see cooking as just to cook, not really something special.”
Naranjo worked two jobs so he could afford training at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and then “just kept working.”
He has cooked for a lot of well-known people, including Barbara Bush, actor Laurence Fishburne and the Spielberg gathering, for which a rental car was provided to him but no cooking facilities at the remote Utah site.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, we’re hoping you’ll cook in our pit out here.’ So I switched my game plan, and we did everything like real ancient methods kind of thing,” Naranjo says.
He didn’t know who the main guest was until he got there, and he still doesn’t know what the gathering was for, although he guesses it was a fundraiser for the monument. Bears Ears has been downsized by the Trump administration and targeted for mining and drilling.
Naranjo hastens to add this, though: “I just want to state for the record that who I cook for is not that important. To me, it’s the feeling people get when I cook for them. It’s the feeling I get from people’s satisfaction and not who you are.”
At what point in your career did you start specializing in indigenous cuisine?
“In my early career, my perspective as a professionally trained chef took me on a path that didn’t feel right. The environment and stress of the job was an easy pathway to the early stages of alcoholism and drugs to cope, to self-medicate. During this time, I learned to pray in Tewa. Maybe as an answer to my prayers, I was asked to be a part of the pueblo food experience. This experience has had the most profound impact on my path as person and as a chef, as I am able to tie my culture to my career.”
What do you think makes you successful as a chef?
“I think in most careers you have to go through a period of failure to where you can rebuild yourself and figure out what was wrong the last time – a series of falling down and standing back up. Just never giving up, I guess.”
What’s your best advice for aspiring chefs?
“Use failure to make you a better person. In the beginning of my career, I was just really good at cooking, so I treated everyone like a jerk and then I got fired for it. Because I got fired from my job, I had to teach myself how to be a better person.”
Can you think of a difficult situation you’ve been through and how you overcame it?
“I guess I’ve gone through a little bit of emotional stuff. I didn’t know my father growing up, and then I kind of knew him a little bit as an older person and then he died. I never really got to know him better, so I just used that energy and put it into work.”
Do you have any hobbies?
“Indigenous food, foraging. I was always venturing out in the wild, learning about medicinal herbs, just studying the environment all through this area – the pueblo region is what we call it. I picked up books. I just wanted to know because everything I learned about in school, I felt like it was in a box, and I thought there was so much more to know about it.”
What’s your favorite book?
“The favorite book I’m reading right now is ‘My Search for the Seventh Mole’ (by Susana Trilling).”
What makes you sad?
What makes you laugh?
“I’m kind of serious, but I do laugh. I have a strange sense of humor, but a lot of people in the pueblo have the same sense of humor as me.”
What’s your favorite junk food?
“I actually do not eat processed food, period. I try to stay really far away from all that. We don’t have it in our house. If you need to make a meal, you’ve got to cook it.”
What’s the most difficult dish you’ve ever made?
“The cooking part has never been hard. The hardest part is volume. I’ve done extreme volume … when we opened Buffalo Thunder resort (in Pojoaque). I served 2,000 (people) a day for 30 days. We were working from 6 in the morning to midnight every day.”
What are your goals?
“It’s kind of crazy. I met all my goals by the time I was 30. When I first graduated from school, my original (goal) was to be a chef by the time I was 30, but I made that happen by the time I was 23. I was going to be a homeowner by the time I was 30, but that happened way early. I came to the point where I was either going to create new goals or just see where it went. So I haven’t really created new goals, but I’ve definitely continued learning some of the older goals.”
Are there any places you want to travel to?
“No desire. People who have a desire to travel usually want to go home to see where they’re from. My ancestors have been here for thousands of years. I’m already home. I don’t have a desire, really, to go anywhere.”
with Ray Naranjo
with Ray Naranjo