Ojibwe chef opens restaurant on Madeline Island
This week, the restaurant Miijim opens in La Pointe, Wisconsin, on Madeline Island in Lake Superior. Miijim, meaning "food" in Ojibwe, is an Indigenous restaurant serving seasonal Ojibwe fare — with a French twist — using meats like venison, bison, and rabbit alongside ingredients like wild rice, island mushrooms, and ramps.
The restaurant has long been a dream for chef Bryce Stevenson, who grew up on the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation and is part of a growing movement to redefine and center Indigenous cuisine. He says he wants Miijim to represent the Red Cliff, Bad River, and other Ojibwe tribes that were forcibly removed from the island.
“I want to reclaim a little spot on the island with our traditional foods,” Stevenson said. “To take those foods and just make them accessible to everybody, to indigenous people and tourists and locals alike.”
Madeline Island is a hub for tourists and summer homes. Stevenson said the island, which is considered a sacred place, lacks contemporary expressions of Ojibwe culture beyond bilingual street signs.
“There’s no solid representation that says there are Natives on this island still and they’re thriving,” he said.
Such restaurants often play the role of educator, and Miijim is no exception. Stevenson is eager to introduce Indigenous people to ingredients that may be unfamiliar, such as game meats and root vegetables, as well as the right techniques to coax the best out of them. Many ingredients will be sourced from Native-owned businesses, including tepary beans from Ramona Farms in Arizona, lake fish from the Red Cliff Fish Company in Bayfield, and buffalo from the Cheyenne River Buffalo Company in South Dakota.
As for tourists, Stevenson says, “I want people to see there’s passion and creativity and art. This beautiful culture that is thriving in this area that the average tourist, when they come here, they don’t see it.”
A self-proclaimed late-bloomer, Stevenson entered the industry when he took a job in the kitchen of Hello Falafel, a sister restaurant of Odd Duck that has since closed. At the time, he was a restless student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, studying English and American Indian studies. He fell for the promise of endless learning, as he practiced making Israeli pickles and laffa bread. Meanwhile, time spent with his wife’s Italian family also taught him to find joy in laborious, from-scratch cooking and dining around noisy family tables.
Stevenson trained in several more Milwaukee restaurants, including Odd Duck and Ardent, and later worked with Sioux chef Sean Sherman, as executive chef in Sherman’s Indigenous Food Lab.
This work took Stevenson far from humble beginnings in the kitchen. As a kid on the reservation, he says, he and his four siblings grew up on commodity food. His mother would “open up a couple cans of this and that, throw it in the pot, and say, ‘That’s dinner,’” he said. “It was never very pleasant, but it was food.”
“When things started getting rough for my mom and her marriage, she was working three jobs, just night and day,” Stevenson said. He started cooking for his siblings. “I was never a great cook. But I tried to make things tasty.” He remembers handling ramen noodles and rice, and thinking, what flavors could he add to make it better?
Stevenson has carried his vision for Miijim since he was finishing his coursework in Indigenous studies. A professor of his encouraged him to put his knowledge to use and help his community.
“What way are you going to give back?” he remembers her asking.
Stevenson says the answer came to him at Hello Falafel. It was a joy learning to make Middle Eastern food, but something was lacking: He had no cultural connection to it.
“I have to go back to Red Cliff,” he said, a refrain he told himself over the years. “I need to open [Miijim] up where I’m from because nothing like it has ever existed. This is what I can do to try to help my people. I just hope to God that I’m able to.”