Cecelia Miller, Fry Bread House founder and James Beard Award winner, has died

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In 1992, Cecelia Miller left her job in real estate and introduced her hand-stretched, made-to-order fry bread to Phoenix’s culinary scene. Twenty years later, her restaurant, The Fry Bread House, earned a James Beard award.

Fry Bread House was the first Native American restaurant to receive the “America’s Classics” designation.

Miller died this month at age 81.

Cecelia Miller had learned her fry bread technique from her mother while growing up on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation in southern Arizona, she told The Arizona Republic in 1996.

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“‘I cooked all my life, so I might as well make a living on it,” Miller had said.

When choosing a name for her restaurant, which she co-owned with her husband Joedd Miller, she decided to keep it simple. Their first location was on Eighth Street and Indian School Road in Phoenix.

”When I tell people I’m from the Tohono O’odham, they say, ‘huh?’ ” Miller said. ”Fry Bread House is easy to pronounce and remember.”

When the James Beard Foundation recognized Miller and Fry Bread House in 2012, her son told The Republic it was a well-deserved award.

“It’s a testament to my mother and her hard work,” he said. “We wanted something for the community.”

The Beard Foundation shared its thoughts about Miller’s death.

“We were saddened to hear about the passing of Cecilia Miller,” Moira Sedgwick, awards director of the James Beard Foundation, told The Republic. “Her Fry Bread House was a wonderful addition to the Foundation’s America’s Classics honorees in 2012, and we remember her not only for her wonderful food but her mission of creating a place where Native people felt at home while dining.”

One former employee remembers Miller’s dedication to hiring Native American staff.

Rosetta Walker, who is Sicangu Lakota, had a hard time finding a job while on probation in late 2012, but Miller hired her on the spot when she applied for a position at Fry Bread House.

“I had just about given up on finding employment,” Walker said. “This was not the first job of my choice but Cecelia Miller gave people like me a chance to get back on my feet.”

The restaurant’s employees had convinced Walker to apply because “Cecelia gives people a second chance, to help people get back on their feet again,” she said. Walker commuted by bus for nearly two hours each way to work, but she found working in the service industry to be a “humbling” experience.

“I always had pride in the Native-owned and -operated food business,” Walker said.  “Cecelia Miller gave a lot of indigenous women a second chance.”

“Cecelia gave me that hand up, not a handout,” she said.

Reach the reporter at kimi.robinson@gannett.com or at 602-444-4968. Follow her on Twitter @kimirobin.

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