In the United States, museums do not get the best reputation for their food choices. There is a museum in the heart of the DC Smithsonian Museum area that will prove otherwise: The Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian. Everybody who sets foot in the café raves about it: from local federal employees who go on their lunch break to Conde Nast Traveler. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes with the Executive Chef, Jerome Grant and see what makes the café so special.
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian encompasses all of the Americas in their exhibitions and this is also reflected in its food. From the seafood of the Pacific Northwest to Peruvian dishes, the food reflects the multiple indigenous cultures of the Americas. It covers five key areas of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere such as the Northern Woodlands, Mesoamerica, South America, Northwest Coast, and Great Plains.
I entered the massive adobe colored museum, walked past its cafeteria and took the scent of all the flavors at the café until I made it to the kitchen of Mitsitam. There, I met Jerome Grant, a young, creative and energetic chef who is passionate about the menu served at the café. The menu is strictly seasonal and the chef and his team come up with a new menu every season. He emphasizes that Native Americans have a deep connection to the earth and he translates that into making menus with sustainable fresh ingredients.
I had the opportunity to see Jerome and his staff prepare very creative dishes at the kitchen of Mitsitam café. He began his tour with a demonstration on how he made fresh octopus from Washington State in a bed of colorful cauliflower puree. The colors of the dish were beautifully vibrant. Jerome also walked us through a delicious cut of elk with seasonal vegetables. I have always been hesitant about game, but this medallion of medium cooked elk was juicy and flavorful.
The creativity of the menu at Mitsitam is seen the diversity of its menu. The chef and his staff preserve vegetables, they preserved tomatoes from the summer and made a confit. They also made a surprisingly delicious beet ice cream. However, the winner is the house made elk pastrami, which they use to make a deliciously simple sandwich.
Native American culture has very close ties to the earth and this menu is a perfect example of this. The balance between the chef’s creativity and the respect for Native culture is seen throughout this menu whether it is elk purchased from a tribe or the scent of sunflower leaves to decorate a dish. This cafe provides the perfect sightseeing break or an escape from the daily routine if you work nearby.
For more information (hours & location): Mitsitam Café.