Chef Freddie Bitsoie learned about his dream job at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian through LinkedIn of all places. A recruiter reached out asking if the Navajo chef would be interested in a job “working with speciality foods.”
“Usually in social media you get a lot of creepy emails, spam, or whatever, I thought that’s what it was,” he says. But he followed through just in case and eventually it led to Bitsoie landing a gig he’d been chasing ever since he visited the museum while he was the director of native foods for schools in the Southwest U.S. “When I was on my flight back, I thought I want to work there. That’s what I really thought. This was a long time ago.”
Bitsoie says he’s received a warm welcome as the first Native American chef of Mitsitam Café—the museum’s eatery that has long been heralded for its cuisine. “There was a need for it, a desire for it,” Bitsoie says. “That’s what a lot of people have expressed to me and I’ve been welcomed very graciously.” Bitsoie replaces Jerome Grant who moved over to the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Café.
The chef grew up in Utah and Arizona and most recently served as the executive chef of the Fire Rock Casino in Church Rock, New Mexico. He has spent his career studying and educating people about Native foods and indigenous ingredients.
“The one surprise that everyone tends to come across is that in the lower 48 states there are over 500 tribes,” Bitsoie says, adding that Alaska alone has more than 200 and Canada more than 300. “To understand what Native food is, is what my job is at this café.”
Bitsoie wants the restaurant to feel like an exhibit, not just a place to refuel on the National Mall. His strategy is to let ingredients like corn, wild rice, sunchokes, and bison speak for themselves. One of the first dishes on Bitsoie’s menu, North Atlantic clam soup with leeks and sunchokes, was the basis for New England clam chowder.
“Prior to Scandinavian arrival in this part of the country, tribes in Nova Scotia, Maine, and all the way down to modern day New York would make clam soup with clams, sunchokes, and seawater,” Bitsoie says. “It was very popular because most of the tribes, through storytelling, commonly shared the same dish.” Fortunately, the version at the museum doesn’t fold in seawater.
Bitsoie will be rolling out more menu items over the next few weeks including roasted beets with seaweed, inspired by the Pacific Northwest, and a Mesoamerican bean soup with green chilies.
In his spare time, the chef is working on launching a T.V. show about discovering indigenous foods called “Rezerations Not Required.” You can watch the trailer here:
Mitsitam Café, 4th St & Independence Ave. SW; (202) 633-1000; nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/mitsitam-cafe