“The Mitsitam Café Cookbook” by executive chef Richard Hetzler (Fulcrum) took second place in the “Best Local” category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris on March 3. The prestigious award gala attracted 1,300 guests from across the globe, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The “Best Local” award winner came from Malaysia, “Kulit Manis a Taste of Terengganu’s Heritage” (My Viscom), and other category finalists hailed from China and Spain.
The Mitsitam Café’s cookbook features 90 recipes adapted for home cooking by Hetzler, the executive chef at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Hetzler honed all the recipes, choosing affordable ingredients available at grocery stores as opposed to the high-priced sorel cactus syrup that he uses to garnish main entrees. “It’s basically the sap that they actually cook down to syrup,” Hetzler said of sorel cactus syrup in the Smithsonian Magazine’s blog. “Super expensive, but it’s excellent. It costs about $128 an ounce. It’s kind of a cool story, but I dare you to find a truffle that costs that much.”
Located on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the Zagat-rated restaurant showcases a refined, seasonal menu. Mitsitam means “let’s eat” in the Piscataway and Delaware languages, and the café stays true to its Native focus, drawing on tribal culinary traditions and sourcing locally grown, raised and harvested foods from the Northern Woodlands, Great Plains, North Pacific Coast, Mesoamerica and South America.
Taste the fiddlehead fern salad (as seen on the cover of the cookbook), the roasted venison, cedar-planked fire-roasted salmon, Peruvian ceviche, squash blossom soup and quinoa salad—to name a few. Beyond a savory experience, the regionally inspired menu aims to cultivate a deeper understanding of American Indian history, culture and values. “These are foods that became as fundamental to indigenous cultures as song, dance, story, art and ceremony,” said museum director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) in a news release.
In the “The Mitsitam Café Cookbook,” recipes are illustrated by historical images of food preparation and objects from the Smithsonian’s collections and also portrayed in vivid color photography. Chef Hetzler told the Post-Gazette that compiling the book was “a collaborative process” akin to running the café, recognizing his team of tasters, “60 museum staff people who volunteered to test the recipes in their home kitchens.”
To Gover, the restaurant pays homage to the First People of the Americas. “[Native peoples] were magnificent scientists, magnificent nutritionists,” Gover said during a Smithsonian video discussion with Chef Hetzler. “They understood very well the foods that they were developing, and the content of those foods, and what it did for their bodies. So, the native people of the Americas were extremely well fed at the time of contact, and those foods now have spread throughout the world.”
The restaurant also works with Native communities. For instance, Hetzler orders its bison through the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, where “buffalo are raised on Native lands by Native Americans,” he said in a Smithsonian video discussion with Gover. He sources its salmon from the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Washington. “…[W]e actually have it flown in. So for us, it’s more difficult because of the regions of the food, but I think in general, it’s the way people should live,” Hetzler said the Smithsonian Magazine’s blog.
“Native food reconnects us to the land,” Hetzler said in a Smithsonian news release. “Simple, abundant and—most of all—flavorful, it is life-giving and a way of life.”
Soon after the restaurant’s 2004 opening, Hetzler realized “we had a gold mine on our hands,” he said in a video discussion with Gover. “We had something that was new, that people wanted to see and wanted to taste it. We built it into this museum; we built it in as a living exhibit—that’s the way we look at it. We are part of this museum; we’re a food of the museum.”