Meet Richard Hetzler, Executive Chef of The National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe
I regret deeply not being able to participate in the 2004 opening of the National Museum of the American Indian—my family flew in to dance for the celebration, but I was presenting at a conference, and wasn’t able to join them.
Over the intervening years when I’m in D.C., I’ve always tried to leave time to visit the Museum’s Mitsitam Café (in the Piscataway and Delaware languages, mitsitam means “let’s eat”). It’s been recognized as one of the major culinary attractions in the D.C. area, and Rachael Ray has recommended it on her television show. Atlantic Monthly has featured Mitsitam Café and its Executive Chef, as has Cowboy and Indian Magazine. Gourmand Magazine has awarded its new cookbook as “Best Regional” in the U.S. In March, it will be competing in Paris for “Best in the World.”
Executive Chef, Richard Hetlzer, was involved from the inception of the restaurant, with its intention of integrating the Museum’s emphasis on Native cultures through indigenous foods. He is a 1995 graduate of the Baltimore International Culinary College, “We were involved with
planning a year and a half before the opening,” Richard told me.
In the Atlantic Monthly article, architect Duane Blue Spruce discussed some of the challenges in designing the café: “The assumption was that, of course, the cafeteria would serve native food, but we had a difficult time backing that assumption up… We wanted to show that there are regional differences. Not only culturally, but in terms of food.”
The Mitsitam Native Foods Café is divided into five geographic stations, with each region having a separate menu. These include the Northern Woodlands, South American, Meso America, the Great Plains, and the Northwest Coast and Columbia Plateau.
Richard has discussed working with foods very familiar to most Native Americans, such as fry bread, or salmon prepared on cedar planks. He’s also been creative about combining what
was available to local Native Nations. “A great example is the maple-brined turkey…We know that Native Americans cured items in salt, so essentially they were doing a brine, infusing the flavor, adding moisture…They definitely had turkey. They had maple syrup. It works for us,” he said in a Smithsonian Institute interview.
One of the issues that came up during our interview was the
challenge of providing Native based foods for the enormous volume of customers served. “In the winter, our slow season, we’re serving 500-600 people a day. During our peak that climbs to 1,500-3,000 a day.” Richard is always looking for sources of Native foods from tribal suppliers. He has salmon flown in from the Quinault Nation of Washington State. To supply buffalo meat, he works with the Montana based Intertribal Bison Cooperative.
(Mitsitam Indian Buffalo Taco)
We also talked about working with what food sources are available. Some items that a tribal group might supply may be too small in number, or simply too expensive for the general Café format. This isn’t a problem, according to Richard. “Nothing is too big or too small. Winter is a slow time of the year, and we might feature something on the menu that we couldn’t provide in the peak season. We change menus every three months. We can run it as a special—turn it into a vinaigrette—giving customers the flavor. For example, with fiddlehead ferns, it would be too expensive to serve them by themselves. But I can have twenty pounds of salad and add five pounds of fiddleheads, so everyone gets a taste of them. “ (Fiddlehead Ferns)
Richard also mentioned his fondness for saguaro cactus syrup, comparing it to a truffle as an item that costs too much to use every day. He buys the syrup from Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a Native American non-profit organization based in southern Arizona. Expensive items like this might be used as a drizzle for a special presentation. One of the reasons it costs so much is how labor-intensive the syrup is to make, as the TOCA site explains:
The saguaro fruit ripens during the hot months of June and July and is hand harvested just before the torrential monsoon rains using a traditional picking stick up to fifteen feet high made of saguaro ribs. Traditionally, the fruit is made into syrup and the tiny black seeds and saffron like pulp are sun dried. Most saguaro syrup – bahidaj sitol – is used in the annual rain ceremony. A very small amount is available to the public. Thick and mahogany colored, this is the most rare of the world’s fruit syrups. Made from hand-harvested saguaro fruit, cooked slowly over mesquite fires, its unusual, deep flavor is both sweet and smoky. Saguaro syrup can be used in a similar manner as the finest aged balsamic vinegars. It is excellent as a glaze, garnish or drizzled over fresh fruit or ice cream. The crunchy seeds are rich in healthy oils and fiber and can be used in place of poppy seeds in any recipe.
TOCA provides Richard with another favorite of his– Ciolim (Cholla Cactus Buds), as well as Bawĭ (Tepary Beans). It’s easy to understand why these Cholla Cactus Buds are such a hit—again, turning to the TOCA site: Ciolim – cholla buds – have sustained the Tohono O’odham for countless generations. Just before the buckthorn cholla cactus flowers in the spring, its buds are hand picked, cleaned of their many thorns and dried for use year-round.
Cholla buds have a unique flavor that includes tones that range from artichoke to asparagus –green and vibrant. Once cooked, cholla buds will triple in size. These delectable desert vegetables love marinades and will readily absorb the flavors of whatever they are cooked with. Terrific in antipastos, chiles, salads and sautées, use them as you would artichoke hearts or asparagus tips.
Cholla buds are incredibly healthy. Even as a side dish in a meal, cholla buds can improve how food affects the body. Two tablespoons of dried buckhorn cholla, for example, provides as much calcium as a glass of milk (14 grams of dry cholla buds supply 394 mg of calcium while one cup of whole milk supplies 276 mg of calcium). Yet, while a glass of milk may have 100-150 calories, the cholla buds only have 28 calories. And because cholla buds contain soluble pectins, they slow down digestion of sugars and other carbohydrates. The result is better control over blood-sugar level, eliminating the highs and lows.
Richard shared with me the restaurant wants to buy from and give back to Native communities, the way they work with TOCA, ITBC, and the Quinaults. While the non-Native Richard has had the opportunity to employ only two American Indian workers, the week of our interview, he had entered into discussions with the Navajo Technical College to explore placing interns with the college’s culinary arts program.
The Mitsitam Café Cookbook was the result of three years of labor, and features 90 recipes with beautiful photography from Renee Comet. Because the restaurant serves so many people per day, the recipes had to be modified to meet the needs of a home cook. Richard explained, “The staff at the museum each took three or four recipes home, made them and critiqued them, and we adjusted the recipes. One of the pushes behind the book was to really find and make recipes that any person could make. You don’t have to be a chef to recreate any of it.”
Richard will be flying to Paris this March, where the Mitsitam Café Cookbook will compete at Gourmand Magazine’s World Cookbook Awards. There are 53 categories, with over 150 countries represented. When I asked him what he will demonstrate, he told me he planned to showcase his Wild Rice Salad, explaining it was something he could do that would easily fit within the 20 minutes he will be allotted, and uses ingredients that are easily available.
Wild Rice Salad
This recipe is from Mitsitam Cafe,
National Museum of the American Indian.
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
6 cups chicken stock
11/2 cup wild rice
1 carrot, cut into
3 tablespoons dried cranberries
1 Roma tomato, finely diced
4 or 5 scallions,
3 bunches watercress
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Spread the pine nuts and pumpkin seeds in a small baking pan and toast them in
the oven for about 10 minutes, until they are golden brown. Let cool.
Combine the chicken stock and wild rice in a stockpot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, for about 45–55 minutes, until the grains are just opened up and tender. Spread the hot rice on a baking sheet and let cool.
When the rice is cool, scrape it into a large bowl and add carrots, dried cranberries, diced tomato, toasted pine nut and pumpkin seed mixture, and scallions.
Toss all of the ingredients together with the vinaigrette, refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and serve over watercress.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1/4cup plus 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons honey
Place cider vinegar in a bowl, and slowly mix in oil. Sweeten with just a touch of honey.