At Oregon’s Allison Inn, Chef Jack Strong Delves Into the Nuances of Native Food

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More than he likes to cook, chef Jack Strong likes to find stories. Strong has spent most of his career captivated by specific ingredients, sharing their history tableside as dishes landed in front of diners.

When he was working at Kai — the restaurant within the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Arizona — that story came in the form of a squash soup. The soup, made with gourds grown by the Gila River tribes, arrived with a puree of Rio Zape beans, beans cultivated by Indigenous populations within northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, particularly the Hopi and Zuni tribes. It arrived topped with cotton candy, representative of the Pima cotton grown by the Gila River tribes. “At Kai, I learned how to tell stories through food,” Strong says, sitting at a window-side table within Jory, the Allison Inn’s restaurant in Newberg. “I tell stories because people connect, then, with where the food is coming from.”

For years, Strong dove deep into the Indigenous foods of the American Southwest, co-authoring the cookbook The New Native American Cuisine and earning a James Beard Award semifinalist nod for his work at Kai. But Strong isn’t from the Southwest; in fact, he grew up in Oregon, as a member of the Siletz tribe. And now, as the executive chef at the Allison Inn, he’s focusing on the Indigenous foodways within the Pacific Northwest, and sharing the stories he serves along the way.

Chef Jack Strong plates oysters with heirloom tomato gelee at an event at the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, Oregon.
Strong plates an oyster course at the Allison Inn.
Kari Rowe Photo

Strong grew up on the Oregon Coast in Siletz, a fishing community and reservation, with his grandparents. He spent his childhood watching his grandmother hand-cut noodles for chicken noodle soup and fishing for trout and steelhead on the Siletz River. However, much of the food he ate wasn’t fresh, an experience common for many young kids growing up on reservations. “We had canned meat and cheese and powdered milk and all that stuff that ends up on reservations — commodity food,” he says. “So I got to learn about how to use simple cuts of meats, or canned vegetables, at a young age.”

As a high school student, Strong started job-shadowing at the Embarcadero in nearby Newport and also working at a nearby seafood shack; he’d spend his time breaking down fish, and picked up cod directly from the bayfront fishers for both businesses. In 1994, he went to Eugene for a culinary program at Lane Community College, where he met chef Adam Bernstein, the owner of Eugene’s now-closed Adam’s Place. Bernstein became his mentor and collaborator for the better part of a decade. “I worked my way up through every station and to co-executive chef with him,” Strong says. “He took me around the country, to Seattle, to New Orleans, to New York, just to get a feel for the industry, get exposure.”

After a lifetime in Oregon, Strong took a family trip to the Grand Canyon, and fell hard for the American Southwest, taking a job at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale.

While working there, he got a call that would change his life. The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass was looking for a chef de cuisine for its restaurant, Kai, specifically to serve Native food. At the time, due to the U.S.’s systematic dismantling of Indigenous food systems and lack of capital for and investment in Native-owned businesses, the country was home to very few explicitly Indigenous or Native American restaurants — certainly not ones at well-funded resorts. Owamni the long-anticipated Minneapolis restaurant from chef Sean Sherman, also known as the Sioux Chef — only opened in 2021, and many of the others in the country opened within the last decade. “They said, ‘Hey, there’s this opportunity to be a chef with this Native American-owned property on the reservation, it should be Native food,’” he says. “I was like, ‘What is that?’ It was a dream job in a lot of ways.”

At Kai, Strong dove into Indigenous foods via ingredient sourcing. He used squash and beans from growers among the Gila River tribes, used buffalo for tartare and made confit of heirloom tomatoes, grilled elk chops and smoked corn for puree. The restaurant racked up accolades, including AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star ratings; in 2008, Strong was a James Beard Award semifinalist for his work there. But he’s resistant to taking too much credit for the success of the restaurant. “We wanted to get more talented people through the door,” he says. “When I was recognized by the James Beards, for that best chef: Southwest nomination, it was because the team was so great.”

For the next 15 years, Strong spent his time traveling back and forth between the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, sticking to resort hotels. Most notably, he returned to the Oregon Coast to work for Chinook Winds, the casino and hotel owned by his tribe. His grandmother’s health was beginning to worsen, and he wanted to stay close to family. He spent seven years learning how to manage a large-scale property and reconnecting with his culture — brushing up on his tribe’s language, Siletz Dee-ni, and hosting powwows. “I could feel the pride in the community, that one of our own was the executive chef,” he says. After his grandmother’s death, he returned to Arizona, spending two years in downtown Phoenix as the chef at the Renaissance and two years at JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley.

When he came back to Oregon in 2022, he didn’t have a specific plan — he had been away from his family for three years, over the course of the pandemic, and returned to the Oregon Coast to be closer to them and figure out his next step. He came to the Allison Inn that August for a reunion meal with his longtime mentor, Bernstein. “I had no idea I’d [become] the chef at that time,” he says. “Just to be here was so calming, and to be home was so nice. I wanted to come back to Oregon, but it had to be the right situation.” The right situation emerged soon afterward, and Strong started at the Allison Inn that fall.

During his first year, Strong followed the same steps he did at Kai: focusing on the people around him. The chef worked on growing the existing team at Jory, and honing in on their talents — he built his relationship with longstanding chef de cuisine Andrew Toombs, another Oregon-raised chef, and hired another Marriott alumnus, John Morales, as his executive sous chef. By building those relationships, he also got to reacquaint himself with the seasonality of the region. Allison Inn master gardener, Anna Ashby, worked closely with Strong as they developed menus, and he let the garden inspire him. “I really like his emphasis on things that grow in the Americas,” Ashby says. “The things he asks me to grow grow well here.”

“For me, Indigenous foods are speaking to place,” Strong says. “So for my tribe, that’s a lot of seafood, a lot of shellfish; in Arizona, a lot of seeds, fruits, beans that can be heat-tolerant, like tepary beans. Seasonality just leans into that with our garden.”

Similarly, he reacquainted himself with the ingredients around him, and found stories that spoke to him. For example, the restaurant uses Fort Klamath sturgeon, which arrives so fresh it still wriggles while he filets it; sturgeon has been eaten by Pacific Northwestern tribes for centuries, although it remains a relatively rare item on Oregon restaurant menus. A Yamhill-based foraging company supplies the Allison with Oregon mushrooms, which appear in a variety of dishes — tucked into ravioli, served with beans from the garden. And of course, shellfish and seafood play a major role on the menu, as an homage to Strong’s heritage. In the spring, mussels arrive at the table with a sturgeon-squash fumet and venison-sage sausage; in the fall, mussels and sturgeon are tucked into a bouillabaisse. “Mussels, clams, any kind of shellfish are important to our tribe,” he says. “So we highlighted them.”

Now that he’s settled in, however, Strong has been able to dive deeper into explicitly Indigenous dinners and cooking. In October, he consulted with the Northwest Native Chamber for its annual gathering, working with Vibrant Table to design a menu featuring things like bison loin tartare, tribal-caught salmon with pumpkin seeds and tepary beans, and toasts topped with white beans and elderberry balsamic. During that process, he discovered that Duane Lane, a Yakama descendent and member of the Northwest Native Chamber, grew his own Ozette potatoes, the oldest variety of potato grown in the Pacific Northwest. He used them in a dish for that dinner — a potato cup with smoked salmon salad — but he also retained that relationship for his own dinner at the Allison, a Celebration of First Foods with Indigenous winemakers and wine professionals.

The dinner, held on November 16, was an exploration of the first foods of the Americas, incorporating things like squash, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and beans. While first foods are the focus, the meal naturally moved through time, starting with an emphasis on pre-contact foods and then incorporating post-colonization foods. “Everyone has a different point of view, when it comes to Native, Indigenous foods,” Strong says. “Right now, there are some high-profile chefs that are more leaning toward decolonization — their focus is on foods that are all pre-contact, so it’s all heirloom, native to the Americas. That is a part of history.”

Similar to how the meal traveled through time, the dinner also incorporated a wide geographic spectrum, using traditional foods of tribes throughout the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and the Americas as a whole. For example, the meal started with an Olympia oyster, topped with heirloom tomato water gelee saved from the garden’s summer crop. The garden also supplied the peppers that arrived with the oysters, which were pickled to preserve them. Tomatoes and chiles were important to Indigenous populations through South America; oysters are a fundamental part of the diets of several Indigenous populations around the world, including the Pacific Northwest.

The bison dish, on the other hand, was more of a nod to Strong’s time in Arizona, using tepary bean ragout for a bison tenderloin. Ramona Farms, owned by a farmer with O’odham roots, grew the beans for the dish, which Strong paired with a bison chorizo and spruce tip dust — a little touch of the Pacific Northwest, for good measure. “Bison tenderloin is not Northwest, but it’s very indigenous to the Americas; meanwhile, spruce tip is very Northwest,” he says. “It is kind of my style. I like to play to place and then to story.”

The Ozette potatoes grown by Duane Lane appeared in a course with a duck and huckleberry sausage, also incorporating purple potatoes for a chimichurri. This is emblematic of Strong’s goals for the years ahead: to keep building those relationships and finding those stories, both in the ground and above it. “I love collaborating, to meet new people,” he says. “It’s important for me to be back home. This is where I belong.”

The Allison Inn & Spa is located at 2525 Allison Lane in Newberg.

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