Art Works Blog

Chef Richard Hetzler on the Art of Museum Dining

When was the last time you visited a museum not for an exhibit, but just for a meal? The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is helping redefine museum dining with its Mitsitam Café, which has become one of Washington’s most unique culinary destinations. Representing five different regions of the Americas, the restaurant mixes traditional Native American dishes with contemporary cuisine made from indigenous ingredients. The seasonal flavors (the menu changes three times a year) are so unique that many locals and visitors grab lunch there whether or not they’re taking in the NMAI galleries. The restaurant is helmed by Executive Chef Richard Hetzler, who trained at Baltimore Culinary College and worked at several DC area restaurants before joining the Smithsonian team. [Ed. Note: Hetzler left his position at NMAI in 2014.) I talked with Hetzler to hear his view on how the art of cooking fits in with the museum world.

NEA: What does the term “art of cooking” mean to you?

RICHARD HETZLER: To me, it’s putting together flavors that work well together that people enjoy and love.

NEA: What was the exploratory process like as you were planning out the restaurant?

HETZLER: It was actually a pretty long one. What we did in the initial planning stages was we tried to look at authentic recipes of Native Americans that were still available. From there we researched the lifeways of those different regions that we’re representing. So for example, Northern Woodlands---were they hunters? Were they gatherers? Were they nomadic people? How did they live and how did they use food in their daily lives? Then we started researching the food and the plants and what was available then and what’s still available now. And then we started putting a kind of contemporary spin on it in the sense of pairing like ingredients together. For example, our wild rice salad with the dried cranberries, scallions, carrots, pine nuts, and pumpkin seeds---those are items they would have eaten. Would they have made a salad out of it? Probably not. But in a meal somehow, they would have been together.

NEA: My guess would be that because you’re limited to using mostly indigenous ingredients, you have to be even more creative when menu planning.

HETZLER: I think the creativity piece comes in the actual cooking and presentation. The ingredients---it’s actually pretty amazing. One of the unique pieces that we’ve learned here is how all the ingredients that we think are mainstream ingredients contributed to or have been contributed to by Native Americans. So if you look at corn, potatoes, tomatoes---those types of ingredients---it’s really then figuring out how you can represent them to where you’re not diluting the mission or giving a false perception of what their food might have been.

NEA: What other aspects of cooking do you find most creative?

HETZLER: I think techniques, [and] overall taste profiles because [Native Americans] were cooking with so many different unique ingredients. It’s figuring out those different flavor profiles and how you can pair them up with other things to make it work.

NEA: How do you think the Café enhances the museum experience for visitors?

HETZLER: It takes the museum itself to a totally different level. If you think of food service at most museums, it’s more of an amenity to the guests; it’s just an add-on. They want to keep people in the museum, so they offer food. I think this museum has changed the perception of food in museums to say that you can have a clientele that comes in just for lunch. Then it becomes a living exhibit within the museum. People see the cultural side of things where they’re looking at collections and looking at different artifacts, but then [they] actually come down and get to taste and feel something that Native Americans would have had or eaten. It makes it a complete immersion in what the museum’s trying to do.

NEA: Do you have any sense of why more museums don’t capitalize on the unique way their restaurants can contribute to the immersive, educational experience?

HETZLER: I think people are scared to take that first step. [Museums] understand that most people are very easy and they can get away with doing a cheeseburger or pizza or chicken tenders. But people don’t mind paying a little bit extra for a quality product in a museum or something like that. There have been museums that during special exhibits have run special menus, but to theme the whole [restaurant] around it has just been kind of a mind-altering thing in the museum world. It’s actually now starting to catch on. With the National Museum of African American History and Culture that they’re building, they’re trying to theme their restaurant around African-American life and foods; something similar to what we’ve done here.

NEA: What do you hope visitors take away from their experience at the Café?

HETZLER: I think it’s more of an understanding of Native American cuisine, and Native American food in general. And how Native Americans used food to sustain life, not like what we think of food today. For us, food is in the back part of our mind. We know that we can go to the grocery store. We know food’s accessible at any part of our day. Where for the Native Americans, it was to sustain life. Every part of their day revolved around food and how they were going to have product to go through the next day so they could sustain their families and keep on with their lives. Where to us, I think it’s “Okay, if I’m hungry, I’ll just go to the grocery store, or I’ll run to McDonalds, or I’ll go to Panera Bread” or wherever it might be.

NEA: Eating of course is a very sensory experience, with visual and olfactory elements coming into play as well. How do you think these all contribute to the finished product?

HETZLER: I think people eat with their eyes before they do anything else. When you can walk into the Café and see a kited salmon cooking over the fire, and then you hear the story about where the salmon came from and how Native Americans kited salmon, I think those play into the whole sensory perception of what food is. And when you can turn around and take that perception that looks phenomenal and have it taste great, then I think it’s a win-win all around.

NEA: Does the repetition of making the same meal day after day ever grow old, or do you see it as a chance to perfect your craft?

HETZLER: It’s a challenge in and of itself because there’s such a diverse menu upstairs, and it’s such a large variety of food. But we work very diligently with our cooks and with our staff, and then it’s basically a matter of fine-tuning every day. It’s figuring out what works, what doesn’t, how you can make something a little bit easier, something to build on flavors---stuff like that. It becomes fun. And the nice thing is that because [the menu] does change in usually about three months, the staff enjoys it because they really get to learn a lot and understand what’s going on.

We try not to repeat anything [when menu-planning]. So we really have the creativity to go as far as we want to go with it and as far as we think we can take our staff to execute it properly.

NEA: How has working with Native cuisine and cooking techniques changed the way you approach food in general?

HETZLER: It’s been more of a historical change for me in the sense of realizing where food really comes from, and understand[ing] how the Native peoples cherished food compared to how we think of food today. It’s a different perspective, and it really changes how you handle [food], what you think about when you create food, and how much time, effort, and love you put into it.

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