banner-optimized_0_0.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Regional Interests

Embracing a Painful History, the World’s Only Ohlone Restaurant Finds Unlikely New Home

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Cafe Ohlone shut its doors last summer, its owners promised they would be back before long. Now, a year later, the world’s only Ohlone restaurant is gearing up for a triumphant return: Owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino announced earlier this month that the restaurant will reopen in Berkeley this November. 

The new, larger incarnation of the restaurant will be located in the outdoor courtyard of UC Berkeley’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology. It will continue to serve the pre-colonial dishes the original Cafe Ohlone was known for—the kind you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the Bay Area, like venison meatballs, chia seed bread and cold, luxuriously silky acorn soup. What will be new, however, is the introduction of dishes that evoke more recent periods in Ohlone history. And, perhaps most significantly, Medina and Trevino hope the courtyard restaurant will usher in a new era of cooperation with an institution that has, historically, inflicted great pain on the Ohlone people—including thousands of ancestral remains and sacred objects that the Hearst Museum has not yet returned to the Ohlone people.

“We have a very complex and not necessarily positive history, up until recently, with the Hearst,” Medina says. “They want to do the right thing, but they need to know how to do the right thing.”

A Painful History

The plan to bring Cafe Ohlone to the Hearst came about fairly quickly. The restaurant had been on indefinite hiatus when University Press Books, whose back patio it occupied, closed—a casualty of COVID-related financial pressures. Left without a home, the nationally acclaimed restaurant was forced to end its two-year run of perennially sold-out ticketed dinners, transitioning instead to a monthly meal kit takeout program that it has run for the past several months out of a commissary kitchen in Old Oakland. As Medina and Trevino looked for a new permanent home for the restaurant, they initially concentrated their search in the San Lorenzo area, where many of the East Bay Ohlones live. 

One of Cafe Ohlone’s meal kits, packaged in a handmade wooden box. (Cafe Ohlone)

Then, Kent Lightfoot, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley, suggested the Hearst as a possible destination for the restaurant—a possibility that, as Medina explains, felt extremely fraught. Alfred Kroeber, the museum’s longtime director from 1908 to 1946 (back when it was called the University of California Museum of Anthropology), had a direct hand in causing the Ohlones to lose federal recognition when his 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California declared them to be “culturally extinct.” Phoebe Hearst, the museum’s current namesake, lived in a mansion that she built on Ohlone land in the Amador Valley, near Pleasanton—right on the other side of the river where Medina’s great-grandparents’ generation lived in one-room shacks. “The Hearst family got richer and richer as our family was disenfranchised,” Medina says.

Perhaps most painfully, once the Ohlones lost their federal recognition, the Hearst Museum went onto their land and looted the shellmounds. “They went in and removed our ancestors from their cemeteries; they removed our cultural objects,” he says. “They just took as much as they could without any care about the sacred.” Medina says he still vividly remembers how during the mid-’90s, when he was seven or eight years old, an Ohlone elder told him about how those remains were being kept in pink containers under the tennis courts at UC Berkeley: “It’s always stuck with me, the anger that was there in her voice.” 

But Medina also notes that in more recent years, since Cafe Ohlone opened its original location near campus, the Hearst has said all the right things about wanting to repatriate those remains and sacred objects, and to promote Ohlone visibility. The hope, he says, is that working closely with the Hearst will help speed up that process. “If we can be there to encourage greater respect of Ohlone people, then we’re going to do that,” Medina says.

In fact, Trevino and Medina felt there would be something very beautiful about hosting meals right outside the space where so many of their people’s relics are located—about bringing Cafe Ohlone’s own modern-day Ohlone baskets and mortars and pestles into that courtyard to take their place among those older objects.

Initially, when Medina and Trevino thought about the post-pandemic future of the restaurant, they’d imagined it as a community center of sorts, where they’d be able to host their language and other cultural classes, and where Ohlone people across generations would be able to gather on a regular basis. They’d still like to create a separate place for that in the San Lorenzo area sometime in the future, but the restaurant will be a cultural center in its own way. At the university, Ohlone visitors will be able to access the actual archives where their language is documented. They’ll be able to see, in person, the baskets woven by their ancestors, which they’ve previously only seen in photos.

Ohlone-izing the Menu

As for the meals themselves, much will remain the same: They’ll still be pre-ticketed prix fixe affairs, held just once a week when they start in November. One thing that will be new, however, is a deeper exploration of foods that don’t fit as neatly into the general public’s understanding of “traditional” native cuisines—dishes and ingredients that aren’t “pre-contact,” but are no less authentically Ohlone. “Throughout different stages of colonization and missionization,” Medina explains, “there were ingredients that were introduced here by either the Spanish during the mission times or by Mexican folks, or later by Americans, that were embraced by our family here and ‘Ohlone-ized.’” 

The pandemic gave Medina and Trevino time to really explore these more recent additions to the Ohlone table. In their May takeout box, they included venison chile colorado, a dish that combines venison—a traditional Ohlone ingredient—with spices and cooking techniques that developed in Mexico. It’s a dish Medina’s great-grandparents might have prepared on the rancheria. Cafe Ohlone customers ate the stew with chia flour tortillas and acorn bread.

“What we want people to know is that Ohlone folks have been there every step of the way,” Medina says. “And sometimes that means we embrace an ingredient that’s not native, but there’s this consistent way of doing it on our own terms.” 

An Ohlone salad, made with locally gathered ingredients. (Cafe Ohlone)

Throughout the pandemic, Cafe Ohlone has erred on the side of caution, citing the Ohlone people’s long history of having infectious diseases weaponized against them, particularly in the Spanish missions. And even now, as California opens up and vaccination rates creep upward, Medina says the restaurant will continue to take a conservative approach. Instead of having customers all sit together at one long communal table, they’ll be spread out on the museum’s large garden terrace, where Medina and Trevino will set up a mobile kitchen. If all goes according to plan, it will be a lovely setting for a meal, full of lush greenery—native plants arranged to create natural buffers between the tables, allowing for socially distanced dining.

Pan-fried local halibut with a California hazelnut crust and a summertime gooseberry and tomato salsa. (Cafe Ohlone)

In the meantime, while the new restaurant space is built out, Cafe Ohlone will continue its monthly “Sunday Supper” meal kit program, with boxes currently available to be reserved for July 18 and August 8.

While COVID may have put the restaurant on ice for more than a year, Medina says he’s grateful for the time he and Trevino were able to devote to uplifting other aspects of Ohlone culture, especially within the community itself. For instance, they recently marked the 58th consecutive week of holding language classes via Zoom, focusing on both the Chochenyo and Rumsen Ohlone languages, spoken by the East Bay and Monterey/Carmel area Ohlones, respectively. Participants range from a 90-year-old auntie to literal babies—one soon-to-be mother attended the classes all throughout her pregnancy, and then she Zoomed in from the maternity ward after giving birth.

“She wanted the baby’s first language to be Chochenyo,” Medina says.

Near the start of the pandemic, when things were at their bleakest, Medina and Trevino shared an oration that they had composed in Chochenyo, in the classic Ohlone oratory style, as an exhortation to their community to stay home for the time being: “Now we must stay apart. / So that our elders are safe / So that our young ones are safe / So that those who are vulnerable are safe, too.” But “makkin rootesin hemmen rocket,” the oration also promised: “We will be together again soon.”

Now, as the restaurant gears up for its reopening, Medina says, “This is us making good on our word.”

Copyright 2021 KQED