"ARE YOU SURE we’re in the right place?” I ask my brother as we pull into a dimly lit strip mall.
Entering a humble coffee shop, I spy a candlelit table with a nine-course menu card at each setting and a chef feverishly plating elegant starters in the kitchen. The room buzzes with anticipation for LorAmy, the Farmington pop-up dining series by 35-year-old Diné chef Justin Pioche, of Pioche Food Group.
For the first course, Pioche’s younger sister, Tia, and mom, Janice, present a Native American greenthread-and-sweetgrass tea. “I welcome you in the Navajo tradition. Shí’éí Justin Pioche yinishyé, Áshįįhnii nishłį, Bit’ahnii bashishchiin,” says Pioche. (I am called Justin Pioche, Salt Clan, Folded Arms people.) “Now, join me in a blessing.”
An Arizona Culinary Institute graduate, Pioche honed his kitchen chops by working with James Beard Award–nominated chefs like Food Network star Beau MacMillan in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Phoenix’s Kevin Binkley. But after working at several chain restaurants that sapped his creativity, the Farmington native decided to delve into his own culinary heritage to find “his story,” as he puts it.
In November 2020, he merged his two passions—cooking and Native American food culture—for the inaugural LorAmy dinner (a combination of his grandmothers’ first names). Despite the pandemic, foodies were hungry for the elevated concept. Every 12-seat dinner, with protocol distan-cing in place, was sold out over the next year. Inspired by the response, he launched a food truck in 2021 that serves Southwestern favorites such as green chile pork, frybread, and posole at breweries and events statewide.
But tonight, we’re here to revel in the chef’s epicurean vision, which uses both traditional ingredients and sci-fi cooking techniques (think flash freezing with dry ice). “With these dinners, I hope our guests experience Navajo food in a more elevated way and gain a greater respect for the Navajo culture,” he explains.
Sunchoke puree, artfully spackled on one side of the plate, gets topped with huitlacoche (a corn fungus also known as “corn smut”), amaranth, and spruce-tip garnish. Additional courses include blue corn biscuits with foie gras butter, deconstructed neeshjizhii (corn stew), and pheasant and purple sorrel. During dessert—the Shimá Sání (Grandma) special, an apple-filled pastry with cedar ash and piñon nuts—I blurt out, “Where do you think he’s finding all this cool produce?”
Luckily for us, we’re seated next to Pioche’s go-to farmers from Navajo Ethno-Agriculture. Working with the nonprofit farm, he gives heirloom produce, such as Blue Hubbard squash and Hopi Turquoise corn, a starring role on the plate.
“This journey has taught me how resilient my people were,” says Pioche, who is collaborating with local schools to teach kids how to farm and cook with traditional ingredients. “When you look at the land around the Four Corners, you don’t see much. But there is a bounty of food—if you just know what to look for.”
FOUR CORNERS FEAST
Justin Pioche recommends a few of his favorite spots.
Campo, Los Rancho de Albuquerque. “Last year, we worked alongside the team at Campo for a dinner takeover,” he says. “Their menu changes all the time, but when the red chile manteca appears, order it!”
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque. Pioche collaborated with IPCC on a dinner and recommends “everything from the bison ribs to the stew, cookies, pies, and the bread—please try.”
Francisca's New Mexican Restaurant, Farmington. “I used to work for the family,” he says. “I love their red carne adovada, salsa, homemade tortillas, and chiles rellenos.”
Juniper Coffee + Eatery, Farmington. “Our friends here make amazing breakfast burritos with homemade tortillas,” he says. “Their take on blue corn mush with fresh berries is incredible too.”