Navajo Chef Explores Indigenous Midwestern Cuisine With Bulrush
In his two years as chef/owner of the acclaimed Midtown restaurant Bulrush, Rob Connoley has combined his expertise in food with his love of history — exploring the Ozarks’ cuisine before it was easy to share ingredients across the U.S.
But Connoley knows the narrative he’s telling is only one part of the story. Before white settlers came to Missouri, the area had a thriving native culture. The food eaten by people indigenous to the area is the original Ozarks cuisine.
As Connoley explained on St. Louis on the Air in January 2020, he has consulted Native American experts. Even so, he said: “It’s not as simple as someone from the Osage nation saying, ‘Go forth, we give you our blessing.’ I don’t think that’s it,” he said. “It’s, ‘How do we celebrate their wisdom, and their knowledge, in a way that they are absolutely comfortable with?’ I don’t have the answer to that.”
This weekend, Connoley’s efforts take a step forward. Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie will partner with Bulrush on two meals this weekend. Formerly the executive chef of Mitsitam Native Foods Café — located inside the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. — Bitsoie also won the Smithsonian’s Native Chef competition. His new book, “New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian,” comes out Oct. 19.
But Bitsoie won’t be cooking his own Navajo-inspired repertoire. Instead, he plans to celebrate the cuisine of the Hopewell tradition, which includes the pre-Columbian civilization that lived in Cahokia as well as settlements across the Midwest to western New York.
“The way I view the history of native people is by region,” Bitsoie explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “The people who identified themselves in the St. Louis area, the Chicago area, we refer to them academically as the Hopewellian culture. It would be the people who spanned the Great Lakes all the way down to Louisiana.” With the tribes on the move over the centuries, precise locations changed with time.
During their time in Missouri, the indigenous people’s diet would have been rich in Missouri’s truly native plants and animals — “things that grew there, and continue to grow,” in Bitsoie’s words. That’s one reason Bitsoie’s menu will mirror Connoley’s in many ways. “Rob and I are coming together to introduce what the Hopewellians used.”
But, like Connoley, Bitsoie hastens to add that the menu has been filtered through his own experiences, as well as altered for modern palates. To acknowledge his role as an outsider to the Hopewell lands, he plans to start the meal with an appetizer in which corn features heavily, a tip to this Southwestern heritage.
Connoley said he knew of Bitsoie from his time living in New Mexico. (After gaining acclaim for his foraged cuisine in that state, Connoley moved back to his native Missouri in 2016.) Inviting him to Bulrush offered a chance to elevate a rising star chef — even as it helped Connoley take a step toward filling in the gaps in his own knowledge of local history.
“It’s always been important for me to have original or first-person stories to share with the public,” he said. “My customers want to know. I don’t have the average customer, I would say. I have customers who really want to know more about the history of the area.”
What: Historical Hopewell Tradition Dinner
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bulrush, 3307 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103
What: Brunch with Bulrush and Navajo Chef Freddie Bitsoie
When: 11 a.m. Sunday
Where: Piper Palm House in Tower Grove Park, 4271 Northeast Drive, St. Louis, MO 63110
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.