Executive Chef Richard Hetzler is used to planning ahead. His restaurant at the American Indian Museum has been attracting crowds since it opened in 2004. In June, Mitsitam Cafe won the prestigious Rammy award from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington–the first museum to do so. Hetzler oversees a menu that changes four times a year, with each change requiring about a month and a half of preparations.
Thanksgiving? Well, that’s just another day for Hetzler. In addition to serving up the regular restaurant offerings of regional North American cuisine, his kitchen is also preparing a whole menu of holiday dishes for the lucky few who ordered ahead.
It’s a menu heavy on the best of seasonal and Native favorites, including parsnips, wild rice and buffalo shank. Hetzler works to source as much of his menu as possible from Native companies, like chocolate from a Choctaw company or coffee from a Cherokee, North Carolina group. The wild rice, for example, is all from Minnesota’s Red Lake Nation.
But Hetzler says he most looks forward to cooking with root vegetables in the fall and winter. “Those are the items to me that people don’t utilize as much and people aren’t as familiar with,” he says. “So the rutabagas, the turnips, the parsnips, those kinds of earthy vegetables and these roots and tubulars that people are like, ‘Ew, they’re so ugly, how do you even cook with them? They can’t taste good, they don’t look good!’”
All it takes to transform those rough roots vegetables into sweet, succulent sides, says Hetzler, is a simple roast in the oven. “The idea behind roasting,” he says, “is that it really brings the natural sweetness of the product out. So if you’re looking at a turnip or a parsnip or a rutabaga, by simply just adding a real nice roast on it–just a little bit of olive oil and salt on them–you take those natural sugars and it caramelizes the product and it really, really is phenomenal.”
On Hetzler’s own Thanksgiving table will be the usual turkey and cranberries but also a few more exotic items; “Being German, sauerkraut and pork we do every year because it’s just sort of a family tradition and it brings you back to your grandmother cooking Thanksgiving dinner,” says Hetzler. In fact, he says Thanksgiving has become a sort of melting pot holiday, welcoming in each family’s personal heritage and cuisine.
The chef also thinks the day shouldn’t be too stressful. Following the kitchen philosophy of mise-en-place, a sort of “everything in its place” emphasis on prep, Hetzler prepares many of the elements in advance. “Dressings can all be done ahead of time. It could be made the night before, put it in the refrigerator, you can stuff your bird in the morning or if you cook your dressing separate, it can already be in your pan ready to go,” he says. “Potatoes can be peeled cut and in water ready to go for mashed potatoes.”
“For me, the morning of, the day of, is usually an easy day. Most of my prep work goes in the day before because I’m mise-en-placing, or getting everything ready the night before so then all I have to do is get up, put my turkey in the oven. I’ll have potatoes on the oven but not cooking and all my side ingredients ready to where that last hour, you’re kind of running around but other than that, the rest of the day is kind of a fun day to hang out with the family and drink some wine,” Hetzler says.
Hetzler also encourages people to take a few risks in the kitchen, even if it’s just switching up on dish; “Cooking is about having fun and when you can do it on a day when you’ve friends and family with you, it makes it that much better.”
This holiday season, why not try a couple recipes from the Mistitam cookbook?