I didn’t set out to own a food truck. I got that fever that a lot of middle class intellectuals get, wanting to open a restaurant. Although I like to think it’s in my blood, since my grandfather owned a very successful deli-style restaurant (which unfortunately closed before I was born).
I was fed up with my 9 to 5 job and the games we play to appease our bosses and colleagues. A restaurant in my neighborhood went up for sale (the building, not the business), and it got me thinking: what kind of restaurant would I open? My first thought was farm to table: all local and seasonal. But that concept was already becoming so popular, it was losing its wow factor. Then I heard (on NPR, naturally) a review of the restaurant at the National Museum of the American Indian – the Mitsitam Cafe – and I had that light bulb moment: Native American cuisine. I’ve always felt an affinity for Native American cultures; when people ask me why, my standard reply is that I must have been Native American in a previous life. I can’t really think of any other reason. I grew up in a nice Jewish family in Baltimore, Maryland, and had no real contact with American Indians, or even the concept of Native America, until I was 15 years old and went on a cross-country camping trip that included all sorts of unique experiences, among them a home-stay on the Navajo reservation.
The concept appealed to me on so many levels: the potential variety would be endless; the food would be delicious and healthy; I could source locally without that being the main focus of the restaurant; and, most important to me, I could use food as a way to introduce people to the vibrancy of Native American cultures.
Then I came up with an even better idea: instead of a restaurant, I envisioned a nonprofit devoted to educating people about American Indian cultures by introducing them to the native foods and culinary traditions of the Western hemisphere. I would open a little cafe with a modest menu (nothing as ambitious as the menu at Mitsitam Cafe), educational and artistic exhibits, and a variety of programs and activities like cooking demonstrations, speakers, workshops, themed meals, etc.
The problem was I didn’t know where to begin. And I didn’t really have the expertise to curate the exhibits or to put together programming. At that point in time I didn’t even know who the experts were, although today I probably would have no problem keeping a full calendar of activities: I have since met numerous wonderful and generous folks from around the country who are involved in some way or another with Native American foods.
But, I could cook. So … what to do? I sure couldn’t afford a restaurant. I almost bought a little neighborhood coffee shop that would have provided the perfect space for my concept, but someone else made an offer before I had a chance. Then, on the suggestion of a friend, I thought a food truck would be just the thing, so I started looking around. About eight months later, I opened Zea May’s Kitchen. And you know what Z is for. Stay tuned.