'Let's Eat!'

At the National Museum of the American Indian, culture is served on a plate.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian has been a work in progress—at least under discussion—for the past decade or so. It opened to the public last fall following many meetings with tribal councils representing numerous Indian groups in North, Central and South America. Every aspect of the building—from the curved shape façade of Kasota limestone from Minnesota that’s evocative of cave dwellings in a canyon wall, to its entrance facing east to greet the rising sun each day—is as authentic and meaningful to American Indian life and ritual as the most knowledgeable experts could suggest.

FoodService Director - Smithsonian American Indian Museum cafeWithin this very special building, it’s all about the stories of the various peoples of the Americas—their cultures, their histories. The café, operated by Restaurant Associates, is officially named Mitsitam (pronounced “Mit-say-tam”), which, like “mangia” in Italian, means “Let’s eat” in the Delaware and Piscataway languages.

The real deal: It’s not only the place to go for a buffalo burger and kick back, but it’s also one of the best places in the country to get a real understanding of authentic American Indian cuisine.

The Museum’s point person and RA’s go-to-contact was Duane Blue Spruce, a Laguna and San Pueblo Indian, who served as the project facilitator. For each of the five geographic regions represented in the menu, Blue Spruce would gather Native Americans for a tasting. Through their critiques and suggestions, the RA team developed the authentic recipes they’re now menuing.

But some recipes were almost too authentic for 21st century taste buds, so, with the blessings of the panels, more spices were added where it was felt they were needed.

Mitsitam is a small café with five stations and seating for 365 that far surpassed budgeted expectations from the outset. “We’re in the 25% to 30% range serving 1,500 to 2,000 people a day—sometimes higher—with a check average of $12.50 per person,” notes Dick Cattani, president of RA’s Managed Services Division.

“The bison, or buffalo, burger is the most popular item on the menu, along with lots of vegetables, especially corn as a staple,” he adds. “We’ll start to introduce new things since we’re getting more input from visitors.”

Going native: Staff heritage plays an important part of the endeavor. “Of our 75 foodservice employees on site,” Cattani notes, “we have six new hires who are Native Americans. They’re all production people from Bolivia, Peru and  El Salvador, and we can benefit from their knowledge, as well.”

The operation will serve an inspirational role as well. “We’re bringing several of our [menu] concepts—perhaps peanut soup, tamales, Indian tacos and Mexican hot chocolate, all exceptionally popular here—to our business-and-industry accounts,” he says.

“We introduced a few days of Native American fare at the U.S. Department of Agriculture account in Washington, and we’ll be bringing it to New York as a Chef’s Table or a station for a week to celebrate Native American cuisine.”