“Food is Medicine:” Chef Austin Bartold and the Gatherings Cafe

Megan Red Shirt Shaw and John Little

A community-embraced café that encourages living healthy, eating healthy, and education through ancestral knowledge. Gatherings Café serves fresh, locally grown foods that are Indigenous and prepared in healthy ways. We are in the heart of the urban Native American community where people gather to catch up with friends and family. A place that brings about tradition, culture and fabulous food”. (Gatherings Cafe Website)


TheGatherings Cafein the Minneapolis American Indian Center has a brand new banner hanging on the wall, thanks to Austin Bartold. Bartold, an Ojibwe chef from the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation, was invited to reopen the restaurant’s doors over five months ago as the cafe manager. Based on his own personal experiences, Bartold knew the mission of the cafe aligned with his other goals: decolonizing narratives around food sovereignty and encouraging healthy diets for Native people.

Memories of growing up with fresh gardens in family members backyards, were mixed with memories of the relatives that Bartold lost to diabetes and other health-related issues. “We had our gardens, but you know, we ate lot of commods. And that’s what we survived off of.” Slang for government commodities, ‘commods’ were and continue to be an essential means for Indigenous survival and persistence into the twenty-first century; containing foods high in sodium, fat, and calories such as canned beef, flour, and cheese. As Bartold grew older and eventually attended Le Cordon Bleu, he began rethinking how food can improve and change livelihoods for Indigenous peoples stating, “I’ve always thought about that whole mentality that food is medicine.”


Bartold, who has lived in the Twin Cities for sixteen years now, acknowledges that the first thing people ask for is often frybread, which is left purposely absent off the Gatherings Cafe menu. He reflects that, “We’re trying to change that model…[frybread] is not a traditional food. It’s what you call a new tradition. [And] there’s a sad story behind it that a lot of people don’t understand or don’t take into consideration.” Instead, the cafe specializes in making a healthier whole wheat wild rice bread. According to Bartold, who cites the high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in Indian Country, “pulling away frybread from an ordinary Native restaurant will help.” Bartold also reflected on an early interaction between a customer at the cafe stating:


A guy came in and asked for four pieces of bread. We put a little bit of butter on the flat top and toasted (a piece of the whole wheat wild rice bread). I gave him the (pieces of) bread to go and he comes back and he’s like “what is this?” He thought he was ordering fry bread. And I said, well it is fried bread. I said just try it, and you’ll like it. And he did. And he came back for more. So just that little impact right there.


Reopening a restaurant without written recipes from the previous menu, Bartold decided to learn exactly what the community wanted, transitioning dishes according to neighbors’ feedback. He kept favorites, and added new options based on his own inspirations and experiences. Items on the menu now include dishes such as a Harvest Salad with fresh kale and roasted sweet potatoes, a wild rice bowl with Leech Lake wild rice and mushrooms, and a Red Lake “Walleye Cake Melt” with mixed veggies, herbs, tomato, roasted and red pepper aioli. In providing these more traditional diets, Bartold has created a restaurant that is nearly farm-to-table with two local farms providing the herbs and veggies. Eichtens Buffalo Farm, 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities, provides the buffalo, while the walleye comes from the Red Lake and the wild rice from White Earth reservations. Coming from a background of working at restaurants that focused on the experienceof dining, Bartold has begun placing silverware wraps and the menu on the cafe’s tables. The restaurant also follows the policies of the Minneapolis Indian Center to limit sugar consumption by only serving infused water and tea. It’s not a surprise, after looking at the menu, that every meal is built to leave diners feeling healthy and energized in mind.

As an Ojibwe chef focused on decolonizing diets, Bartold had a lot of learning to do about other communities’ traditional foods beyond his own. “I had to explain when I moved to Minneapolis (that) I had to learn a lot, because I (had) never had buffalo before, I never had ground cherries, and I never knew asking stinging nettle was. Where I come from, that stuff doesn’t grow and we don’t have buffalo. So I grew up on a different diet.” The biggest seller is in fact the cafe’s “Bison Melt,” served on their wheat wild rice bread with shredded cheese, blueberry horseradish, and braised bison. “I braise my bison for two days with eleven different spices…I can’t tell you what those spices are. Chef’s secret.” It’s through his own creativity and a care for culinary creations, that Bartold continues to bring success and cultural revival to Gatherings Cafe.

As a reopened and smaller business, catering has kept the Gatherings Cafe alive with dates booked months in advance.Bartold hopes to continue to partner with the community and to provide opportunities for the cafe’s recipes to be shared with the public. According to Bartold, “I probably [have] about 60 locations that I cater to. Not all are native facilities. I do a lot of schools, McKnight Foundation, Mill City Museum, a lot of different places downtown.” While just one small restaurant, The Gathering Cafe is helping to #ChangeTheNarrative of Indigenous food creation and consumption.

The Gatherings Cafe is open Mon – Fri, from 8 A.M. – 3 P.M.

To learn more, follow them at Facebook.com/gatheringscafe/

For catering inquiries: contact Austin Bartold at abartold@maicnet.org or 612-879-1753