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One on One: Richard Hetzler

By Steven Hedlund
January 01, 2008

Richard Hetzler, 35, is a Marylander through and through, right down to his love of blue crab. Born in Baltimore, he attended high school and landed his first job in a restaurant kitchen in Anne Arundel County. A graduate of Baltimore International College's School of Culinary Arts, Hetzler also studied at BIC's satellite campus in County Cavan, Ireland, for three weeks. Hetzler cut his culinary teeth as executive chef of Skipper's Pier Restaurant & Crab House in Deale, Md., on the Western Shore. But as executive chef of Mitsitam Café in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Hetzler's culinary know-how extends well beyond crab cakes and other Chesapeake fare.

Mitsitam (pronounced Mit-see-tum) means "let's eat" in the Piscataway and Delaware language. The 350-seat restaurant is essentially an extension of the museum, specializing in authentic Native American cuisine. The seasonal menu changes on each equinox and solstice and is divided among five Native American regions: Northern Woodlands, Northwest Coast, Great Plains, Meso America and South America.

The fall 2007 menu featured numerous seafood dishes, including Golden Beet Soup Garnished with Dungeness Crab; Barbequed Oyster with Spinach and Smoked Ham; Striped Bass with Stewed Tomato, Onions and Chiles; Salt Cod Fritters with Green Onion and Cilantro; and Cedar-Planked Fire-Roasted Juniper Salmon.

Hetzler, who is employed by Restaurant Associates, a subsidiary of Compass Group, was executive chef of the National Museum of Natural History when he was tapped to help open Mitsitam Café in 2004. Apparently, Hetzler did his homework. The Café has received gleaming reviews and does just over $5 million in sales a year.

"We're definitely not looked at as a typical Smithsonian café," he says. "We're compared to a lot of the higher-end restaurants in the city. It's a destination."

I tracked down Hetzler in early December, a month after he helped open Courtyard Café at the National Portrait Gallery.

HEDLUND: What percentage of the café's menu is seafood?

HETZLER : It's 8 to 10 percent of our menu mix. But it's probably about 50 percent of our sales mix. Salmon is one of our top sellers. [Customers] see a whole side of salmon roasting over a fire, so eye appeal has a lot to do with it. And people are familiar with [salmon].


Describe the café's customers.

[Customers] tour the museum, see the Native American exhibits and learn about the cultures, and then they come here to the restaurant and it's like an extension of the museum. Because of that, people are more adventurous. They try food they wouldn't necessarily try at a typical restaurant. Frog legs is a prime 
example. We do a lot of frog 
legs. We sell probably 10 to 15 pounds a day right now. Chefs tell me, "I can't sell frog legs at all, and you're selling 10 to 15 pounds a day."


Do kids eat seafood at the café?

Kids today aren't like they were when we were growing up. They're not afraid to try seafood. We have a lot of children who get a piece of salmon or striped bass. They also relate to tacos, 
so they'll get a fish taco or a shrimp taco.


How does your menu reflect 
Native American cuisines 
and traditions?

Wherever possible, we use indigenous products. Also, we apply indigenous cooking methods, like with our cedar-planked salmon. We kite and cook it very similar to the way they would have kited and cooked salmon over an open fire. It's so people can get the cultural significance and really understand that it's not just about putting fish in the oven for 10 or 15 minutes.


What is seafood's cultural 
significance to

Native Americans?

Seafood is a huge part [of Native American cuisine]. Look at salmon. There were festivals built around salmon. [Seafood] was a huge, huge part of what they did and how they lived, because food to them was life. It wasn't like it is now where we can just run to McDonald's and pick up a cheeseburger. They fought for everything they had, and food was sacred to them.


What seafood species 
did Native Americans eat?

On the West Coast, it was salmon and trout. On the East Coast, it was shellfish: oysters, lobsters, clams. Look at clambakes. They originated from Native Americans. Native Americans were very resourceful. They would whale hunt in canoes. But most of the resources were in close to shore. So we're looking at inland fish and shellfish.


How many seafood 
suppliers do you use?

I have four main seafood suppliers. All of my salmon comes from Quinault Pride, which is a native seafood company in Taholah, Wash. So it's all wild salmon that I have flown in from them. They line-catch their salmon - they do it the right way. I work closely with Quinault to freeze salmon for me, so when the kings aren't running I can still get them.


What's your biggest challenge?

Controlling quality is No. 1, because there's such a large volume of people coming through [between 500 and 2,000 a day]. Food cost is No. 2. How do we get families to eat here without breaking their banks? [The check average is $15 to $20 at lunch; the café isn't open for dinner.]


What do you 
enjoy most about your job?

Being able to meet new people. I try to [visit the customers] a couple of times a day just to say, "Thank you for coming in. How was everything?"


Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com



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