« January 2008 Table of Contents
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
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
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
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
so they'll get a fish taco or a shrimp taco.
How does your menu reflect
Native American cuisines
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
What is seafood's cultural
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