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The Museum Restaurant’s Executive Chef Discusses the Pacific Islander-themed Cuisine

Written By: Aimee Engebretson Maori Madness at the Bowers Museum’s Tangata Restaurant
Photography By: Madeline Craig

Near the Discovery Cube at the 55/5 freeway crossing, the Bowers Museum offers its guests history in the form of pop culture. Current exhibits include Mystery from the Tomb, Watercolors of Diego Rivera and Sacred Realms. While many come to Bowers to enjoy the wonderful array of art, did you know that Bowers also features Tangata, a restaurant focused on Pacific cuisine? This restaurant has a modern feel with its bright red decor, and is the perfect complement to a lovely day at the museum.

Q: How did you get involved with the Bowers Museum?

Donald Harris: I worked there in the summer of 2014 as a sous chef and loved the environment. The next year I jumped at the chance to apply for the executive chef position at Tangata and have been there almost a year now.

Q: What made you want to become a chef? Where did you learn?

DH: In my family, food has always been the main attraction at any holiday. My family is Italian, and my Nana wouldn’t let anyone leave the house without eating. All our holidays are huge events where food is always the star.

Q: Where did you learn to cook?

DH: I learned at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and graduated in 2005. Since then I have worked with Nick Weber, Florent Marneau of Marché Moderne and Ross Pangilinan of the Leatherby’s Café Rouge.

Q: Tangata, the name of your restaurant, means “mankind” in the tribal Maori language. How does your restaurant cater to the groups coming through the museum?

DH: Tangata offers lunch daily from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. as well as catering from events from small gatherings to weddings. I love that at Tangata I can enjoy the perks of both working in a restaurant and catering to a variety of groups.

Q: What’s one thing most people don’t know about Tangata?

DH: Many people don’t know that Tangata has been recently remodeled and the cuisine has been updated. It’s truly a gem hidden in the Bowers Museum, and most don’t know that you don’t have to pay museum admission to come to Tangata.

Q: How does the food relate to the art and vice versa?

DH: I believe that food should be an experience just like visiting the museum. We want to make it a fully immersive environment, which is why the menu is focused on Pacific Rim cuisine. This makes the experience of visiting Bowers’ come full-circle.

Q: Does the food of Tangata ever tie in directly with the current museum exhibitions?

DH: We do offer special events for certain exhibits. For example, there will be a prix-fixe dinner to celebrate the opening of the mummy exhibit coming up on March 19. There will be some unique dishes on the menu such as roz bil laban, which is a vanilla scented rice pudding.

Q: You have several unique dishes on your menu such as spam tacos and candy stripe beet salad. Where does the inspiration for these dishes come from?

DH: As a chef, I love trying new food because I see each dish as a new experience. I like to take my favorite flavors and rework them into unique and interesting combinations.

Q: Your extensive cocktail menu includes specialties from regions like North and South America and French Polynesia. How do you narrow down the best ingredients and recipes for each of these areas?

DH: We determined these by looking at the most popular ingredients in each region and creating our own recipes from those. The Tangata staff taste tested them and chose what we liked best and felt was the best fit for the restaurant.  

Q: How would you describe the atmosphere at Tagata?

DH: Tangata is many things, but the words that stand out are contemporary, understated and tasteful. In the day, it’s bright with natural light and sunshine. You can event see the gardens and lawns of the museum, so there’s an indoor/outdoor feel.

Q: You seem to be focused on picking out the perfect ingredient—are they locally sourced?

DH: We have local purveyors who go out to farmers market to find the perfect ingredients, so some of them come from local markets in Orange County and Los Angeles.

Native Knowledge: Tangata offers a large cocktail menu full of decadent combinations you won’t find elsewhere. Check out their specialty drinks such as the Batanga, which is a mix of tequila, lime juice and Mexican Coca-Cola. Try the Perfect Russian Martini, which combines vodka, peach schnapps, sour apple pucker, pineapple, soda and orange juice for a fruity delight.

Tangata is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Tues.-Sun.

Tangata at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art
2002 N Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92706
714.550.0906

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