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Slow Food Leaders: Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino

by Julie Kunen, Slow Food USA

The original California cuisine

Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino serve California cuisine at their Café Ohlone. But don’t expect goat cheese and avocados. For these chefs and food activists, California cuisine is replete with local foods such as mushrooms, acorn flour, smoked venison and watercress. This is elegant, sophisticated cuisine, not survival food. And while the ingredients date back millennia, the preparation is decidedly modern-fusion. Trevino and Medina are not stuck in a museum and neither is their Indigenous culture. As these leaders put it, to peg the inception of California cuisine to the era of Wolfgang Puck and his contemporaries is “not fair, not true, and completely erases us from the equation.”

At this time of year, a diner visiting Café Ohlone, located in the back of a bookstore in Berkeley, would find mouthwatering dishes on the menu such as a bay nut truffle amuse bouche, a single bite of sweet, salty, spicy, and mineral flavors all rolled together. The truffle is made from shelled and roasted bay nuts ground with salt harvested from the East Bay shoreline, pressed into small balls with dried wild strawberry and a watercress leaf. This taste might be followed by a traditional acorn bread, made with flour from either the black oak or valley oak. Or perhaps a thick acorn porridge, rolled into balls and baked to a sweet, soupy, jellylike interior. Then, local chanterelles gathered and roasted in sunflower or walnut oil with bay laurel.  Other modernized dishes that are riffs on traditions might follow, such as a gravy of mushroom drippings blended with hazelnut flour and bay salt, served over smoked trout or hazelnut biscuits. Or smoked meats like venison served with blackberry sauce. A salad might be foraged watercress with gooseberries, pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, dried berries and purslane.

21st century Indigenous cuisine

One special dish is Louis’ “Ohlone-ized” version of albondigas, based on a recipe from his family from the 1930s. In his version, the meatballs are made with venison and seasonal vegetables, bound with amaranth grain, rather than rice, and seasoned with blanched dandelion greens or watercress and porcini mushrooms. Desserts are especially decadent, including vanilla bean chia seed porridge with hazelnut milk, or their signature acorn flour brownies. When using chocolate, Vincent and Louis rely on a close relationship with a Zapotec community in southern Mexico who grow and process chocolate. A friend brings them small batch chocolates; other communities share ingredients like salmon, pine nuts, or deer meat. Reciprocity is a big part of Ohlone culture, and Louis and Vincent want to source their ingredients responsibly while helping to uplift other Indigenous communities.

“Right now, we have to choose a side that we are honoring. We need to stand up to massive corporations who are homogenizing food and make sure that culture has a voice. Working on a global level with food activists, Indigenous or not, relationships develop and we are stronger together.” 

Neither Louis nor Vincent have a formal culinary background, but instead learned to cook from family. In Louis’ case, his great-grandparents opened and ran a restaurant for 55 years, creating many recipes. Ohlone culinary practice has a long tradition of slow cooking, with lots of development of flavor. Louis and Vincent learned these techniques and then applied their creative intuition to traditional foods, consulting archival materials and elders’ memories to complete their dishes.

Reclaiming Mak-‘amham

The two men founded an organization, Mak-‘amham, so that they could tap into the deep cultural benefits that come from traditional ways of eating. Mak-‘amham means “our food” in the indigenous Chochenyo language of Vincent’s family and tribe, who are from the East Bay area of San Francisco. Both Ohlone, albeit from different parts of California, Vincent and Louis are working to strengthen the role of traditional foods in modern culture. A principal way they do this is to gather and celebrate the wisdom of elders and to pass that wisdom on through inter-generational actions and activities around food. The recovery of traditional knowledge of cuisine is part of a larger cultural recovery of language, customs, stories, and arts taking place despite a challenging environment, which includes urbanization and a long history of discrimination stemming from colonial domination.

Inspired by a revival of the Chochenyo and Rumsen languages (they are both conversationally fluent speakers), Louis and Vincent saw a model for what was possible in terms of bringing back things that were dormant, like food traditions and storytelling traditions. Before launching anything together publicly, they reached into their communities and hosted a “cultural campout” around traditional stories, arts, and foods. Serving a traditional meal with acorn, mushrooms, venison, native peas, and native berries, the two saw first-hand the love their community had for these foods. Vincent especially recalled the happiness of the elders at tasting the first collective bite that his community had of its most traditional foods. Based on that formative experience, Mak-‘amham focuses on ways of making traditional foods accessible through trips into the East Bay hills that, with elders’ guidance, teach people how to gather sustainably in these ancestral lands. Time spent together gathering seasonal foods and sharing communal knowledge is what Vincent refers to as “beautiful intersections.”

“We live along the same waterways and terrain as our ancestors,” he says. “But now it’s an urban landscape. This is home even if looks different. We’ve been here forever.”

Gathering trips are complemented by cooking classes that further share information and formal dinners at Café Ohlone that feature these foods along with community discussions about “where we want to go in the future.”

Difference is okay

As a physical space, Café Ohlone is a rejoinder to the challenges not just to an urban homeland but to a sensation that “there were few reminders that we exist, or space for our culture. It was sad not to see ourselves in spaces and places.” Their response was to create a café where members of the community have a safe space to go to eat their foods and for elders to eat what they grew up eating.

“Our food is delicious,” Vincent says. “It is worthy of being presented in a restaurant. It has rootedness and cultural connections. Ohlone people are here, we never left, and we never will.”

The restaurant welcomes non-Ohlone people to come and know the culture and foods, and perhaps to stand as allies in the fight to reclaim culture. As Vincent explains, “right now, we have to choose a side that we are honoring. We need to stand up to massive corporations who are homogenizing food and make sure that culture has a voice. Working on a global level with food activists, Indigenous or not, relationships develop and we are stronger together… We are a force internationally, and we want to protect the things that matter. Without Slow Food it would have been much harder to develop these relationships. Terra Madre reminds us that we are part of something, we are interconnected, and we experience similar challenges. Difference is okay – it would be so boring if everyone was the same. Different food expressions and cultural expressions are worthy of being celebrated. Slow Food amplified this message. I always love hearing all these different voices coming together for similar purpose.”

Looking to the future, Vincent wants to see Indigenous foods promoted more widely outside native communities. He envisions a series of restaurants all over the world that celebrate local Indigenous cuisine, saying, “everywhere should have these places because there are Indigenous people everywhere.”

Linking Past, Present and Future

Louis connects this hope for the future back to the painful memories of elders whose traditional foods were disparaged and then, in the words of one elder, “put away.” Past and future can be reconciled by the healing inherent in bringing these foods back into cultural consciousness through respect.

“Moving forward,” Louis says, “young people today and in the future will be empowered to continue the work of revitalization until our culture is as elevated and celebrated as any other.”

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Vincent Media and Louis Trevino serving food at Café Ohlone