The Indigenous cafe using native cuisine to help its chefs fight addiction

Café Gozhóó in Arizona uses the kitchen to teach therapeutic skills to those recovering from substance abuse

Driving along State Route 73 in eastern Arizona, it’s wide open skies and a red rock landscape, dotted with ponderosa pines, juniper bushes, yucca and prickly poppies. Just outside the White Mountain Apache town of Whiteriver, the blue roof of a gas station appears.

Only, it’s not a gas station anymore. The sign that once listed gas prices now welcomes visitors to Café Gozhóó, a new restaurant celebrating Western Apache cuisine. Inside, executive chef Nephi Craig – who is White Mountain Apache and Diné, the Navajo word for the Navajo people – slices corn off freshly roasted cobs to make Apache cornbread, a three sisters salad and soup stock. Chef de cuisine David Williams, who is also White Mountain Apache and Diné, prepares breakfast burritos and cedar-smoked queso fresco.

But Café Gozhóó, which opened last October, isn’t just a restaurant. It’s also a vocational training program at the Rainbow Treatment Center, an addiction treatment program operated by the White Mountain Apache tribe since 1976.

A woman wearing an apron and standing in a professional kitchen pulls on black food service gloves. In front of her, on a white cutting board, sits a raw duck carcass.
Divonne Mason, a chef at Café Gozhóó, grew up in Whiteriver, Arizona, and remembers planting seeds in her grandmother’s cornfield. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

Craig, who is 10 years sober, is the center’s nutritional recovery program coordinator, and uses the kitchen to teach therapeutic skills – connecting with ancestral foods, stress management, and teamwork – to people recovering from substance abuse. Since the cafe’s opening, a handful of students have gone through the six-month, paid vocational program, and hundreds more have taken nutritional recovery classes hosted there each week.

Skills to recovery

Divonne Mason, chef de partie at Café Gozhóó, remembers a childhood full of food when she was growing up in Whiteriver. She planted seeds along the banks of the river in her grandmother’s cornfield, where she also attended family cookouts and learned how to butcher a cow. And when she was older, her first job was working in her aunt’s food truck. Despite the growing presence of fast food restaurants and absence of nearby grocery stores, her grandmother helped their family remain connected to their food traditions.

By middle school, Mason remembers she and her friends had started drinking, often with older cousins. It was just the thing to do, she said. The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly one in five Native American young adults has a substance use disorder, often due to historical trauma and the alcohol made available on reservations. But she didn’t realize that drinking too much could make a person sick, until one day her young niece asked why her eyes had started turning yellow. Mason was later hospitalized for the jaundice, and when she emerged from treatment, she enrolled in the Rainbow Treatment Center.

Two men work near stoves in a professional kitchen. A blue sticky note attached to an overhead shelf filled with shiny metal tools reads ‘Be loud, be vocal, demand!’
Chef Nephi Craig uses notes in the kitchen to help his staff build their skills and work as a team. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

It was through the center that she was connected to Café Gozhóó. She said the skills she learned there have aided her recovery.

There’s the patience required to cook foods such as bundi’tunneh, or Apache racket bread, which is baked one piece at a time over the coals of oak and juniper logs in an open fire. There’s the ability to keep calm under pressure when she helps prepare meals for lunch, as hungry customers wait. And there’s teamwork. “If I need something, like if I’m busy making the dough, Harold will make the fire. Or if I forget something, like I forgot the carrots, chef Williams will help me,” she said.

These therapeutic skills are at the core of Craig’s mission for the cafe. Repetition and relationship-building are key to cognitive behavioral therapy, so the kitchen is a powerful environment for clients to “build their skills, get in tune with all of their senses, their motor skills, their sense of belonging, of being part of a team”, he said.

Café Gozhóó is also filling a critical gap in access to care. Many mainstream recovery programs are located far from Native American communities, and they often lack counselors trained in culturally competent care. In his own journey to sobriety, Craig said, “I would encounter white counselors that would tell me, ‘You’re predisposed to become an alcoholic as a Native.’” But as he got deeper into his own study of recovery he realized, “It’s therapy’s dismissal of our legacy of historical trauma.”

A closeup view of a plate of food with salad greens and corn. Gloved hands add a finishing touch to the plate.
The dishes at Café Gozhóó ‘allow people to build a relationship with food’, said chef Nephi Craig. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

“We’re really, at our heart and our spirit, a clinical environment,” Craig said of Café Gozhóó. “We’re allowing people to build a relationship with food, with themselves and with our Apache landscape.”

Recovering food traditions

When Craig and his team prepare a meal, they always discuss the origins of the dishes they’re cooking. Much of their produce is grown locally, just 15 minutes down the road from the cafe, at Ndée Bikíyaa, or the People’s Farm. A project of the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s water resources department, Ndée Bikíyaa fills 900 acres (364 hectares) south of town, where farmers grow corn, onions, chiles and other produce, which will be served in local schools – and at Café Gozhóó.

A person in a hat uses a hose to rinse out a black wheelbarrow in front of a small house that serves as a greenhouse.
Ndée Bikíyaa, meaning the People’s Farm, is the source for much of Café Gozhóó’s produce. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian
View from inside a tunnel greenhouse on the farm. An irrigation line can be seen in the dirt.
Ndée Bikíyaa, just 15 minutes down the road from the cafe, grows corn, onions, chiles and other produce which will be served in local schools. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

“We’re trying to find ways to combat diet-related diseases among the people. A lot of us are related to people who have diabetes, hypertension,” said educational outreach coordinator Ciara Minjarez, who is White Mountain Apache and Gila River Pima. With few options for buying healthy foods in town, she said, “We want to reach out to more of the people and say, ‘Come buy your food here. It’s right here, locally grown, and this is way better than what we have in the stores.’”

At Café Gozhóó, even dishes that don’t seem to have obviously Indigenous roots – such as ratatouille – can reveal the rich food history of the Americas, since the tomatoes and squashes typical of the French recipe are native to the American south-west.

But even with Café Gozhóó and Ndée Bikíyaa, Whiteriver and the surrounding Fort Apache and San Carlos Apache reservations are still considered food deserts.

A person wearing a woven sun hat looks down at the crops on the farm.
Food deserts are common on reservations and Ndée Bikíyaa gives the community an option for healthy food. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

Food deserts are common on reservations because when colonizers forced Native Americans off their ancestral lands, they also restricted their access to the plants they had long grown and even required them to raise different types of livestock. And reservations were often on land that wasn’t conducive to agriculture, so communities came to rely on government food rations, which were often culturally inappropriate and less nutritious than their traditional foods.

“We’re not too far away from that time in history where so many of our food traditions, parenting traditions, ceremonies, agricultural traditions had to be abandoned and almost lost because of so much conflict in the American south-west,” Craig said.

Café Gozhóó’s mission isn’t only about supporting recovery from substance abuse, but recovery from historical trauma, he said.

Two men can be seen through a window working with food, with the rest of the kitchen reflected in the glass.
Harold Hawthorne and Nephi Craig use the refrigerated station to prepare for lunch at Café Gozhóó. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

Balancing treatment and cuisine

Before he started working at Café Gozhóó, Williams developed his love for cooking by watching celebrity chefs, like Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain, on TV. But once he started working in restaurants, he quickly learned that many of the difficult aspects of the culinary industry aren’t shown on TV.

“In kitchen culture, there’s a lot of anxiety and depression,” he said, in addition to high rates of suicide and substance abuse. But at Café Gozhóó, he sees a camaraderie that stands in contrast to the traditionally competitive environment of professional kitchens and began practicing some of the lessons of sobriety himself, taking a step back from his own relationship with alcohol and focusing on discipline and teamwork in life and the kitchen.

“Coming here, I’m listening to what chef says and trying to utilize those tools – blending cooking philosophy and lifestyle changes,” Williams said.

A man in a chef’s apron holds a cast iron pan in one hand as he cooks at an industrial stove.
David Williams, a chef at Café Gozhóó, finishes up a breakfast order. Photograph: Ash Ponders/The Guardian

At the Rainbow Treatment Center and Café Gozhóó, Craig and others view addiction and alcoholism as health disparities resulting from their community being cut off from their land, culture and resources. Because of that, working on White Mountain Apache land is central to the cafe’s success, Craig said. “My family’s from here. My heritage is from here. The power that keeps me sober is from here.”

That’s a large part of how the treatment center settled on a name for Café Gozhóó, which means happiness, harmony or balance in the Western Apache language. “Everything we need for recovery is woven into our culture already,” Craig said.

Cecilia Nowell with photographs by Ash Ponders

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