When you are in the museum’s kitchen on a hectic morning and Chef William asks if you want to taste a rum bun, you say “yes” even if you are not sure what it is. It doesn’t matter; it’s handmade and fresh from the oven, so it will be delicious.
Chef William Bednar is the Head Chef and inspiration behind the 600,000 meals served in our Stars and Stripes Cafe and Constitution Cafe. Do those numbers conjure up visions of frozen, canned, and imitation food? Don’t let the large quantities fool you. Everything that we serve is fresh and made from top quality ingredients. From the carrots that are peeled to the onions that are chopped and the cookies that are baked, it is all done the old fashioned way—just in a very large way. How many cookies do our visitors gobble up? Over 100,000 so far this year.
I like to cook and I like to eat, so I know a good thing when I see it. I see the salads that change with the seasons and the day’s produce delivery. I see huge sandwich wraps rolled up with fresh, spinach tortillas. And I see and smell trays of steaming cookies, tarts, cupcakes, and rum buns. It takes a great deal of effort to cook it all from scratch. Isn’t the chef tempted to buy pre-chopped bags of frozen veggies or shrink wrapped turkey-like meat? No. Chef William does it right, and our visitors are always pleasantly surprised. Some even request recipes, an unusual occurrence for a cafeteria. But then, we are not a cafeteria…
What inspires the chef to work so hard? When I asked, he looked at me as if I asked a very silly question. “I am old school, and this is the right way to do it. It means we produce better food for our visitors, and the kitchen staff is more involved and engaged as well.”
It is true that there is a real pride of “ownership” from all those who work in the cafe. One example of fresh gone extreme—even more extreme than the fact that Chef and staff hand-pit fresh cherries for desserts—is that he is currently cooking with herbs and tomatoes grown organically in the museum’s Victory Garden. The Victory Garden, lovingly tended to by Smithsonian Horticulture Staff, is located on the terrace just outside the cafe. It does not get any better than that.
I could go on, but this is making me hungry. I am going to have a slice of hearth-baked veggie pizza for lunch today. What about you?
Kathy Sklar is the business program manager at the National Museum of American History.