FOOD IS LOVE, the saying goes. But at Cafe Ohlone, it isn’t served to only present-day diners. For founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, cooking is also a way of nourishing their roots, and expressing love and deep gratitude to their ancestors, for whom they always remember to fix a plate.
Pushing back against the notion that California cuisine was born in the 1970s, Medina and Trevino launched their Ohlone cultural institution mak-’amham, which means “our food” in the Chochenyo language, in fall of 2017. Shortly after, they started the beloved Berkeley pop-up Cafe Ohlone, hosting sit-down dinners on the back patio of a local bookstore. These evenings offered more than a meal: Medina, a member of the Chochenyo Ohlone tribe, and Trevino, a member of the Rumsen Ohlone community, gave talks on the history of the land and its robust culinary traditions. Family members helped serve food. Sometimes a DJ played music.
In short order, the cafe — the only dedicated Ohlone eatery in the world — became a thriving community hub, a place to eat well and to learn. Then COVID-19 arrived, and the pair pivoted to elevated takeout. Since late 2020, they’ve served a monthly “Sunday Supper” — a meticulously curated make-at-home meal for two (with foolproof instructions) presented in a redwood box with a handmade beeswax candle and, in subsequent editions, a small spring wildflower bouquet.
The food itself is a vivid celebration of regional bounty. Pieces of seared ultra-fresh venison backstrap are served with local mushrooms, crispy fingerling potatoes roasted in smoked walnut oil, and emerald-green spirals of fiddlehead ferns fit for a fairy tale. All of the flavors are enhanced by salt from the East Bay shoreline. Savory hazelnut flour biscuits with Indian onion are pleasingly rich and caramelized, almost scone-like. And the pièce de résistance is a salad of watercress, sorrel, pickleweed, and purslane, dotted with tart golden gooseberries, plump blackberries, coyote flowers, and popped amaranth seeds, and dressed with a blackberry and bay laurel coulis that imparts both a sweet berry tang and a minty freshness. The meal closes with chia seed flour brownies, agave-sweetened hazelnut hatole, and elderflower and stinging nettle tea. It’s a dinner that’s filling — multi-textured, explosively colorful, and deeply satisfying — but still feels clean. Hyperlocal elements and the intention apparent in every step leave behind a sense of healthful abundance.
The work of mak-’amham is joyful. Trevino says that’s because it’s not merely the work of revival. It reflects the vibrant, living, evolving Ohlone culture that is here now, that has been here for centuries.
Because Medina and Trevino cannot be with diners in person, they record a video message to accompany the suppers. One meal also included a playlist made in collaboration with their elders, with tracks by Nina Simone and Brenton Wood. The pair cherishes time with family, which they say makes them feel sane and secure in an overwhelming world.
Medina and Trevino believe in grounding their work in deep research. Both have spent time in Ohlone archives, reading about how their people lived a century or more ago. The indigenous history taught in school is often a sanitized and abbreviated lesson that captures neither the extent of the violence done by European settlers nor the nuances of the cultures they sought to control. Reckoning with this painful past — including the near-total extermination of the Ohlone people — is an unavoidable part of life for Medina and Trevino. There are deep wounds to heal and “healing can take multiple lifetimes,” Medina says.
But the work of mak-’amham is joyful. Trevino says that’s because it’s not merely the work of revival. It reflects the vibrant, living, evolving Ohlone culture that is here now, that has been here for centuries. Partners in love and work, Medina and Trevino are united, palpably, by a common sense of purpose. When asked what it’s been like working together as a couple, they look at each other and smile warmly. “Louis often says ‘our work is fueled by nothing but love,’” answers Medina. “Love for each other, for the old ways, for our culture, this land, our family.” Kindness has been passed down as a way of life, adds Trevino, even a way of resolving conflict. “Our elders are the sweetest, kindest people,” he says. “There are still ways to be biting, through humor, for example. But in the archives, Indian law was to speak with kindness.”
Love and kindness permeate the couple’s work. So, too, does a spirit of celebration — of the resilience of the Ohlone people and the enduring comforts of tradition. They’re engaged in Chochenyo and Rumsen language study, which they’ve continued weekly over Zoom throughout the pandemic. A member of their language group recently gave birth and called in from the maternity ward so the first words her baby heard would be in Chochenyo.
Medina and Trevino draw wisdom and power from the past but find plenty of encouragement in the present too. Urged on by their elders and customers hungry for more, they are busy planning for a bright future. When it’s safe, they will be opening a new space, which they envision as a food-centric gathering place for the Ohlone community, where others can learn something too. Teaching through good food feels like the best way to acknowledge their history and continued relationship with their homeland. “We’re right where our people have always been,” says Medina. There were efforts to remove us from this space but because of the strength of those generations, we’re still right here.”
A Guide to Hiking Through Ohlone Terrain
As preservationists of the foodways and culture of the Ohlone people, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino have deep roots in the Northern California coast. Here, Trevino and Medina share a guide to hikes and nature walks that capture the beauty of Ohlone’s heritage and their connection to the Bay Area terrain.
Sunol Valley, whose Native name is tawnan, is a beautiful landscape of canyons, meadows, and waterfalls along Alameda Creek. This creek is where our great-grandmothers were born on the old Indian Rancheria and our Chochenyo language was preserved in the 1920s. One can walk for hours without seeing another human, though you may see a wildcat. In spring, California’s native flowers thrive here, with whole hillsides turning orange from poppies and purple from lupines.
Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park
Redwood Regional Park, whose Native name is saklan, stands atop the Oakland hills. The park features towering third-growth redwoods, where many of our family’s pre-contact villages were once located. In the days prior to colonization, this area held some of the planet’s most majestic coastal redwood groves. A complex network of deep trails moves through these beloved trees along San Leandro Creek in a chilly, misty microclimate unique to this space.
Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve
Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve is a moody, ancient volcano in the East Bay hills. It’s a short drive from the skyscrapers of downtown Oakland. A trail leads to the deep center of the crater of the volcano, a tangible reminder of how old the landscape of the East Bay is — this place has never been a “new world.”
Coyote Hills Regional Park
Coyote Hills, its native name tuywun, is a series of low-lying hills along the southern East Bay shoreline that juts into the San Francisco Bay. The hills are surrounded by salt flats and tule marshes that are teeming with life of all kinds. As children, our grandmothers led cultural classes there to teach our Ohlone traditions — if you squint your eyes, it looks as if colonization never occurred here. Trails in the hills and boardwalks through the marshes show the abundance of this ancient place, long stewarded by the hands of our people.
Inspiration Point is an accessible, paved trail at the crest of the Berkeley Hills, just a short drive from downtown Berkeley. The trail is teeming with an abundance of wildlife, such as rabbits, crows, and quails. It also has a rich flora of fragrant flowering seed plants, bay laurel forests, and sages. When you look down from the trail, the contrasting urban flatlands are visible right below, as is San Francisco Bay. On some afternoons, the fog intensely rolls in from the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate, covering San Francisco with a thick, white wall, while the East Bay hills stay warm and sunny.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Tai Power Seeff Photographer
Tai Power Seeff is a travel and portrait photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Seeff's most inspiring photo projects address cultural and environmental preservation. She was invited to photograph the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was featured as a 'Green' Photographer by American Photo Magazine.