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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Cherokee Chef Competes in Iron Chef-style Competition
by WILL CHAVEZ - Senior Reporter, Cherokee Phoenix
credits: photos courtesy of Chef Don McClellan
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee Nation citizen and chef Don McClellan stepped out of his comfort zone July 24 to compete in an Iron Chef-style competition as part of the 2011 "Living Earth Festival" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

The annual Washington, D.C, festival celebrates Native contributions to protecting the environment, promoting sustainability and using indigenous plants for health and nutrition.

McClellan, 34, originally of Nowata, said he was invited to compete by his mother Carolyn McClellan, who is the NMAI assistant director of community and constituent services.

"With my education and experience, she thought it would be a great opportunity for me to come to D.C. and showcase all my talent," McClellan said.

His competition was Chef Richard Hetzler, the executive chef for the NMAI's Mitsitam Café, who won the 2010 inaugural competition.

McClellen has been a chef for 17 years and is the executive chef at Atria Vista del Rio in Albuquerque, N.M. He describes his dishes as "flavorful New Mexican."

He said he prefers to keep his preparations simple and flavorful and that his Southwestern style meshed well with the competition's ingredients of corn, beans and squash – the traditional "Three Sisters" among Native farmers.

He said having worked with the main ingredients for the past six years as a chef in Albuquerque prepared him the competition. He also said he was able to use the derivatives of corn, beans and squashes in addition to the actual ingredients.

"I can use squash blossoms as opposed to using zucchini or yellow squash…Corn tortillas would constitute use of the corn," he said before the competition. "It's going to be challenging for the simple fact that corns, beans and squash have to be in each dish."

For the competition, each chef and his assistants had to prepare two appetizers, three entrees and two desserts using the main ingredients. They also had fresh salmon, duck and buffalo meat available.

McClellan said creating dessert pastries is not one of his strengths and that he was concerned about his desserts. To prepare for the competition, he said he ate New Mexican-style food, read cookbooks and studied various ways "the Three Sisters" can be prepared.

He said one of the strengths he brought to the competition was his ability to flavor foods to make them multi-dimensional in taste. He takes pride, he said, in flavoring and seasoning food so that his customers don't feel the need to flavor it after it reaches their tables.

The competition was judged on taste, color and presentation and included a time limit. The chefs had one hour for prep work and one hour to prepare their dishes before serving.

The competition was held in the museum's outdoor amphitheater, and McClellan said during the competition the temperature was around 102 degrees, with a heat index of about 115 degrees.

He said he knew he had to focus in the heat and "cook with his heart" and that he was capable of winning because he had a good menu.

"It's an opportunity I don't want to walk away from and say, 'oh well, I could have done this or I should have done this.' I want to leave it all out there in the competition," he said.

Judgment was handed down by a group of local chefs. The panel consisted of Scott Drewno, executive chef at "The Source by Wolfgang Puck" and last year's Washington, D.C., Chef of the Year; Brian Patterson, Hetzler's opponent from 2010; and Pati Jinich, executive chef at D.C.'s Mexican Cultural Institute and host of the cooking show "Pati's Mexican Table."

A report from the competition states McClellan was the crowd favorite. However, he lost by one point, 629-628.

McClellan said he "loved the competition," networking and getting out of his "comfort zone" and believes it will help his career.

He said it was a learning experience and that it confirmed he could keep up with the "big boys."

"I know that I can cook, and I've been doing it for a long time. People love my food," he said.

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