Chef Stephanie "Pyet" DeSpain grew up surrounded by culinary entrepreneurs, but her interest in becoming a chef herself came later in life. "I grew up with people who were very passionate about cooking," she tells Yahoo Life. "Two of my uncles owned restaurants in Kansas City. My grandmother was a baker. My mom's adopted dad loved to cook. Her biological father was a hunter. They would say it's a good life skill to have to be able to cook something for yourself and for your family."
Though the influences were present, DeSpain, whose nickname comes from her inherited Native American name Pyetwetmokwe, says she planned on majoring in marketing in college. "I was really set on being someone that worked in corporate America," she shares. "I had this image of myself going to work with a briefcase and a little pencil skirt. That, to me, was the image of success. That's what I strived to be."
When she went to college, however, her vision of who she wanted to be changed. DeSpain realized she was interested in cooking, and the rest was history. Today, she's known as the Season 1 winner of Next Level Chef, where she was judged and mentored by iconic chefs Nyesha Arrington, Richard Blais and Gordon Ramsay. Season 2 of the cooking competition airs after Super Bowl LVII on Fox, and with her newfound celebrity chef status, DeSpain, who has Mexican and Native American roots, is bringing attention to cherished recipes from both cultures.
DeSpain says being able to represent both of her heritages is an emotional experience. "For me, it's a very emotional experience to proudly represent both of them," she says. "We are in a modern era of not just trying to honor who we are today but honor our ancestral foods and represent who we are."
"There's so much that's been lost," she adds. "So many people don't know what traditional Native American or Mexican foods are. I love being able to show people how to use modern techniques and modern ways of cooking to honor the old foods."
A passion for teaching history and culinary skills is what fuels DeSpain's work. "I've been traveling to different native communities and giving all of them an opportunity to get to know me," she says. "I went on television and said I wanted to represent them — but how can I do that if I don't give them a chance to get to know me? I've been visiting and helping in any way that I can, whether that's going to the Boys and Girls Clubs [of America] or going to their classrooms and sharing my journey with them. I also just secured my first cookbook deal, and with this cookbook, I plan to shine the light not on just me and my tribe, but on several tribes across the U.S."
Being part of two cultures that are often misrepresented in history and on holidays, DeSpain shares that she does not feel overly negative toward Thanksgiving. "I love getting together with friends and family," says the 31 year old. "The fact that people are able to take off work and get together is great. I look at [Thanksgiving] as an opportunity to get together with family and share a meal. It's probably one of the very few times of year that families can do that, so I still celebrate it."
"If Thanksgiving was never a holiday, it wouldn't be a teaching point for people," she continues. "People might not even talk about Native Americans at all if it weren't for Thanksgiving."
Interested in learning firsthand how DeSpain blends her Native American and Mexican heritage together? The chef shares a holiday rice recipe below.
Duck Fat Wild Rice with Mushrooms and Poblanos
Courtesy of chef Pyet DeSpain
1/2 cup wild rice
3 tablespoons duck fat
1 tablespoon thyme
2 cups vegetable broth
2 ounces baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
1/2 teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cloves roasted garlic, smashed
Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, begin to peel the blackened skin off the peppers one at a time. You can remove the seeds and stems at this time as well. Chop the peppers into a medium size dice. You can char the peppers on a cast iron skillet over a medium to high heat.
Once peppers are fully charred, place in a heat-safe bowl and cover it with a lid, the steam from the peppers will soften the outer skins making them easy to peel later. Set the bowl aside and allow to cool.
Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, begin to peel the blackened skin off the peppers one at a time. You can remove the seeds and stems at this time as well. Chop the peppers into a medium size dice.
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt 1/2 tablespoon duck fat.
Add thyme and sauté for 1 minute.
Add wild rice, stir well to coat. Stir occasionally for 1 minute to lightly toast rice.
Add vegetable broth, bring to a low boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20-35 minutes.
In a skillet over medium heat, melt 1/2 tablespoon of duck fat, add 1/4 diced onion saute until onions become translucent.
Add mushrooms, diced poblanos, salt and pepper, and sauté for 5 minutes.
Add garlic and stir for 2 minutes.
Combine sautéed veggies into sauce pan of rice.
Finish off rice by adding the remaining duck fat and fold into rice, mixing all veggies, rice and duck fat.
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