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A healing collaboration: Café Ohlone moves onto Berkeley campus

A one-time-only tour and tasting event at the café this Saturday is sold out, but the outdoor culinary experience will open to the public in June.

Vince Medina and Louis Trevino, co-founders of Café Ohlone, stand together in the courtyard of the Hearst Museum, where construction is going on for a new home for the café.

Vincent Medina (left) and Louis Trevino are co-founders of Café Ohlone, which is moving onto the Berkeley campus and will hold a sold out walking tour and tasting event this Saturday, April 23, 2022. It will open to the public in June. (UC Berkeley photo by Sofia Liashcheva)

“A love song to Ohlone culture” is taking shape on the south patio of UC Berkeley’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology. There, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are creating a new home for Café Ohlone, an outdoor educational culinary event series where, on Saturday, April 23, groups of ticketed visitors will spend 30 minutes taking a walking tour of the evolving site and tasting the foods of the co-founders’ community, the Ohlone. The event, which falls on Cal Day, is sold out.

When the installation opens to the public in June, it will feature an abundance of native plants; a dry creek with basalt boulders; native trees that sing, converse and even joke with each other; and dining tables and seats made from fallen East Bay redwood trees.

Locally-sourced food on the menu— including salmon, duck, mussels, clams, salads with edible flowers, warm drinks infused with herbs, fruits and flowers, as well as truffles created with nuts from California bay trees — will come from the partners’ family recipes. Medina and Trevino, accomplished chefs, are recognized as cultural leaders and restorationists in their Ohlone communities.

A mound inspired by traditional shellmounds — rounded hills that contain ancient remnants of the daily and sacred lives of Native peoples — and made of crushed oyster, mussel and abalone shells will anchor the back of the space. On nearby benches, Ohlone elders will be able to sit and reflect.

“When you think about a love song, it’s about all those things that touch a certain place, bring up a lot of emotion,” said Medina, a member of the Bay Area’s Ohlone Indian tribe. “Being outside is the stuff dreams are made of, when you go into the hills, among the flowers, under old growth oaks. We want this space to reflect that and to be fun, imaginative and serious at the same time, dignified, with technology that reflects both older and modern times, all part of a continuum of Ohlone identity.”

An aerial view of the communal dining table at Café Ohlone. It is nighttime and there are small overhead lights above the diners.

Guests eat at a communal table at Café Ohlone during its time in the courtyard of University Press Books. (Photo courtesy of Café Ohlone)

A healing collaboration

The café is a healing collaboration — called ‘oṭṭoy, meaning to repair or mend in Chochenyo — between Café Ohlone and the Hearst Museum. A one-year pilot project, it is “an educational installation and event series … that highlights the cultural resilience and diversity of the original peoples of the East Bay, with a focus on food,” said Lauren Kroiz, associate professor of art history and the museum’s faculty director.

It is part of the Heart Museum’s work, she said, “to acknowledge our institutional role in historical harm to Native American communities and move toward positive, healing relationships in the present and future.”

The museum is in a building once called Kroeber Hall; it was unnamed in 2021 because its namesake, Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960), is a powerful symbol that evokes exclusion and erasure for Native Americans. Among the key reasons for Chancellor Carol Christ’s decision to strip the name from the hall was that Kroeber collected or authorized the collection of the remains of Native American ancestors and curated a repository of them for study. His treatment of a Native American genocide survivor known as Ishi also contributed to the Building Name Review Committee’s report to Christ, which advised the unnaming, as did Kroeber’s role in the federal government’s decision to no longer recognize the Ohlone and to take away their land and political power.

Ancestors and belongings of the Ohlone people remain stored in the museum; Berkeley continues to move forward to prioritize repatriation with a new program centered in the campus’s Office of Government and Community Relations.

This novel campus model of ‘oṭṭoy — operated by the museum, advised by Café Ohlone and in partnership with Cal Dining — will offer ticketed admission to the public for tea on Wednesdays, lunch on Thursdays, dinner on Saturdays and brunch on Sundays, said Kroiz. A collaboration seed grant from the Berkeley Food Institute and philanthropic donors also have provided support for the project. The ‘‘oṭṭoy (Ohlone) Fund continues to seek gifts to support the museum’s efforts to invite artists to campus to help educate the community about the living Ohlone community and the Ohlone culture.

Vince Medina and Louis Trevino serve food to their guests at Café Ohlone.

Café Ohlone opened in 2018 in the courtyard of University Press Books in Berkeley. Food was served family-style, and meals were accompanied by an informal lecture about how Native cuisine is gathered and prepared. The bookstore and café closed in 2020 during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Café Ohlone)

A quest to ‘uplift our culture’

Medina and Trevino grew up with families with strong culinary traditions specific to their histories. “I have the best memories of aunties, parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents preparing delicious food, like chili dishes, beans and corn. My grandmother was famous for her chilaquiles,” said Medina. “These dishes were introduced to our family at Mission San Jose and prepared on the Sunol Rancheria, where they were incorporated into our culture and are still made by our family today. And being in that same place as the older generation, we would hear stories and conversations and good gossip. It was an all-around positive experience.”

Trevino, a UC Berkeley alumnus who is a member of the Rumsen Ohlone community, said his great-grandparents had a restaurant in Southern California, “and it was always a family place. That’s where I learned about the foods and to appreciate the flavors of all those sauces and chilis.”

After Medina spent time as a curator at Mission Dolores, helping visiting school children understand the hardships that Native people endured in the California Missions, he decided it was time for a change. The job was “impactful, and I felt I was making a difference,” he said, “but it also was psychologically draining, a hard place to be. I wondered how I could continue to educate people, but also uplift our culture.”

So, he and Trevino decided to interview their elders, to research Ohlone recipes and cooking styles preserved in family archives, and to experiment with, and sometimes modernize, the recipes. Trevino would go on to become “exceptional at making acorn flour brownies,” said Medina.

In 2017, the pair founded a cultural organization called mak-‘amham, or “our food” in Chochenyo, that in 2018 gave rise to Café Ohlone, a pop-up outdoor restaurant in the courtyard of University Press Books in Berkeley. The first Indigenous restaurant in California, it served food family-style. Meals were accompanied by an informal lecture about how Native cuisine is gathered and prepared, prayers, candlelight and blankets when the air chilled.

After closing in March 2020 because of the pandemic, the café lost its space that June when the bookstore closed.

Vince Medina, one of the founders of Café Ohlone, walks onto the courtyard of the Hearst Museum, where there is construction underway for a new home for the café.

Vincent Medina walks onto the Hearst Museum’s courtyard, where construction is underway for a new space for Café Ohlone. (UC Berkeley photo by Sofia Liashcheva)

Kent Lightfoot, a Berkeley anthropology professor who said he’d participated in some “delightful meals, delightful presentations” at the café, suggested that it move across the street, onto the Berkeley campus.

“It wasn’t just about the fantastic food, but the whole educational package that comes with it, … that makes a case that the Ohlone are very much here today,” he said. “Vince and Louis talk about each dish, how it was collected, how it was cooked, and its meaning for Native peoples.”

Today, with the on-campus café in the works, “things seem to be moving in the right direction,” said Medina. “The chancellor is a fantastic ally, and I have a lot of respect for her work. She’s consistently shown her vision isn’t just words; she takes visible action to see some resolution come from big issues.

“Department heads, from anthropology to linguistics, want to see positive change happen. And I’ve also seen on campus a swelling movement of students who want to see the local Ohlone and Indigenous people be given the recognition we deserve.”

In planning the café/campus partnership, Kroiz said she talked with Medina and Trevino “about the difficult history of the Hearst Museum and the ancestors and belongings stored in our spaces, and they talked to their families, who became interested” in the idea of relocating the café to the museum patio.

Today, for the museum, the café is seen as “a way forward,” said Kroiz. “It’s a beginning action for the Hearst and the campus as a whole toward healing and grappling with the past, toward building relationships with those whose land the campus sits on. I’m so excited.”

Said Medina, “Today, we can be publicly candid and honest about the history of our people, as taught to us by our elders; have positive visibility on campus; and add a deeper understanding about what happened, about the pain, and work simultaneously with the university on a brighter future, where old wounds can be resolved, and we have recognition.”