Exploring American Indian Cuisine at Tocabe

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Keeping native culture alive and plates full at Tocabe, an American Indian Eatery

By Natasha Lovato

Forget stereotypes of feathers, moccasins and dream catchers. The modern American Indian is not Hollywood’s misrepresentations, but rather authenticated in a communal space through a concept everyone can relate to — food.

Ben Jacobs sought to keep his Osage traditions alive by opening his own restaurant, inspired by Grayhorse American Indian Eatery, which his parents operated on the 16th Street Mall from 1989 to 1991. After partnering with Matt Chandra, he opened Tocabe, an American Indian Eatery.

After a trip to their Osage village in Pawhuska, Okla., Jacobs and Chandra wondered why American Indian food wasn’t available outside of the community, or even inside the community except for special occasions, family gatherings and powwows. So they decided to take the idea of Grayhorse, evolve it and create a space that was designed and built for everyone.

The concept is casual, like many chain lunch spots. Customers order at the counter, go down the line choosing ingredients, pay and sit in an open space. The original recipes are based on his mother’s and grandmother’s recipes, and Jacobs realized the best way to make everyone feel welcome was to provide specificity without being too broad in terms of the food served.

Tocabe owners Matt Chandra and Ben Jacobs. Photo courtesy of Tocabe

Tocabe owners Matt Chandra and Ben Jacobs. Photo courtesy of Tocabe

“Being Osage is very tribally specific,” he said. “We also didn’t want to be regionally specific but rather as broad as we could without being pan-Indian because everyone has their own individual identity depending on what tribe they’re from.”

Chandra and Jacobs use their ingredients to create something that respects and represents many tribal identities. Tocabe sources ingredients from different tribes, with wild rice from the Great Lakes area and braised bison of the North American plains.

Running the only restaurant of its kind in Colorado, Jacobs set out to prove that the restaurant industry can be about more than food. He is creating an environment that shares identity and sparks conversation.

“Other natives will come in and ask, ‘who owns this place? Are they Indians?’ Because they want to know it’s true to the fact and not just cool and trendy,” he said  “At the same time I’m going to hire someone who isn’t native because it’s open for everybody. We’ve been asked, ‘why are there no dream catchers? Why are there no feathers? Why are there no moccasins?’ But that’s the point about breaking the mold. If you don’t really care and you just want to eat food, then that’s great, eat food, we’re a restaurant. We’ve never attempted to be a gift shop.”

Although the community is encouraged to be a part of the identity conversation, Jacobs wanted to focus first and foremost on customer service, fearing that a bad experience would reflect on the larger Native American community. 

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“If someone has a bad experience in a Chinese food restaurant, for example, they can always go to another one,” he said. “I want my customers to enjoy the food, enjoy how they were treated, enjoy their time and then if they get something out of it, great. If they want to learn more, great. In no way do they have to do that. It’s never force-fed, no pun intended.”

Jacobs applies the same theory at home. By just keeping aspects of the Osage lifestyle around his young children, they have developed a love for the culture on their own.

“We have drums around the house, my son loves the music, he loves watching people dance on YouTube and he likes all of those things on his own so I’m never trying to force any of those things on him. I just always want it to be an open conversation about who he is and where he comes from,” he said.

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Jacobs’ mother taught him about native culture in a similar way, and he figured out how to navigate his identity as half European and half Osage in modern American culture.

“It’s the complexity of being an Indian that is so hard. What makes us strong is we understand our history,” Jacobs said, but because of places like Tocabe, the contemporary American Indian is able to thrive in a space where cultural identities are unified by food.

Colorado native Natasha Lovato will soon graduate from MSU Denver with a degree in Integrative Written Communication in the Arts.