Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota founder of The Sioux Chef, describes the exclusively indigenous food at his upcoming Minneapolis restaurant as “straightforward, boldly seasoned, and unpretentious”— like the recipes in his soon-to-be-released cookbook. At its most tangible level, his restaurant, The Sioux Chef: An Indigenous Kitchen, will answer: “What are the flavors indigenous to this particular region?”
The Sioux Chef team relies solely on pre-reservation foods, shunning dairy, processed sugar, wheat, flour, processed foods, beef, pork and chicken. What else is there? Quite a lot, as Sherman’s first cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, will showcase, while also dispelling outdated notions of traditional Native American fare (ahem, fry bread). The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen “features healthful plates that embrace venison, duck, blueberries, sage, amaranth, and abundant wildflowers.”
Published by the University of Minnesota Press and co-authored by Sean Sherman and local chef and cookbook author Beth Dooley, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen will be released October 10, 2017 (pre-order here). The cookbook does more than offer recipes and stunning photographs of indigenous foods. It takes a very simplified look at the ingredients and the creation of the food.
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Similarly, The Sioux Chef’s brick-and-mortar restaurant will take an unassuming, family-style approach with primarily Dakota and Ojibwe-focused foods and preparation techniques. “We enjoy doing the fancy dinners and putting all the artistry in our work. But the food at heart is simple pieces,” Sherman said.
Sherman and his business/romantic partner Dana Thompson are currently deciding between a couple of properties in the Twin Cities area for the first restaurant. Sherman anticipates reaching a decision by end of summer and shortly thereafter releasing a timeline for build-out and opening. The restaurant’s “green concept” will rely on all wood-fire ovens and grills. “We’re trying to move away from petroleum addiction as much as possible, utilizing solar energy and even cold air in the winter time,” Sherman said.
Attached to the restaurant, Sherman’s new nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), will take physical shape. A landing page at NATIFS.org introduces the nonprofit’s two-pronged purpose: indigenous culinary education and developing indigenous food businesses. NATIFS will share the indigenous food system curriculum that The Sioux Chef team has been designing for the past two years. “We’ve devoted our work to being open-sourced to try to reach out to all of Indian Country across the continent, because we need strengthening of indigenous food systems,” Sherman said.
Through NATIFS, Sherman envisions indigenous food practitioners across North America coming to a centralized place to learn and collaborate in their test kitchen, and play with their “indigenous pantry of foods.” It will be a breeding ground of indigenous food knowledge that will proliferate across Turtle Island and beyond.
An Indigenous Culinary Expansion
Once his Minneapolis restaurant and educational hub are running smoothly, NATIFS will help local tribes create their own food businesses or cafés. Though similar to a franchise in theory, it’s a different concept, because each restaurant will be unique and culturally specific. Plus, the profits will go directly to the tribal communities. “We just want to run it on the backend, with the main hub in the Twin Cities as the educational center to train managers and cooks,” Sherman said.
Yet Sherman’s vision expands well beyond Minnesota. After NATIFS fosters the creation of indigenous restaurants in nearby tribal communities, Sherman wants to replicate the model on a nationwide scale. He envisions similar restaurants/educational hubs in major cities that each spawn a web of food businesses—tribally-run satellite cafés in surrounding native communities. “The goal is to make regionally and culturally appropriate restaurants all across the country,” Sherman said.
The food businesses are intended to celebrate indigenous knowledge through food. He hopes to see many indigenous restaurants popping up all over the country over the span of the next decade.
Sherman’s model creates thriving micro-economies. The Sioux Chef, for instance, prioritizes its food purchases from indigenous vendors. Sherman relies on Native-run businesses for wild rice (White Earth Real Wild Rice), wild game, fish (Red Lake Nation Foods Inc. fisheries), wild edibles, and agricultural foods. He’s a regular at Dream of Wild Health, which cultivates an enormous heirloom seed collection in Hugo, Minnesota, and Wozupi, the Mdwewakanton Dakota farm that cultivates organic vegetables and manages a heritage orchard in Prior Lake, Minnesota.
Eventually, Sherman anticipates creating micro-regional economic systems across the country. “They’re going to be able to purchase from their own indigenous vendors in their own community first, and utilize the food that they’ve grown themselves,” Sherman explained. NATIFS can also provide tools to help native communities grow their own gardens or integrate permaculture designs.
The elaborate plan has been on the drafting table for a long time. That said, the details are still falling into place. Some of the restaurants may potentially operate as nonprofits under the umbrella of NATIFS. The nonprofit just launched, and Sherman and Thompson are in the process of looking for a director to take its helm.
The Rising Demand for The Sioux Chef
For years, Sherman and his Sioux Chef colleagues have immersed themselves in understanding, foraging, harvesting, growing and preparing pre-colonial indigenous foods. In 2014, he launched “The Sioux Chef,” his catering business and educational service. The brand quickly gained notoriety with the debut of Tatanka Truck, his indigenous food truck collaboration with Little Earth Housing Authority in Minneapolis. The popular rainbow-splashed van with a buffalo icon served food like cedar-braised bison with roasted sunchokes over corn cakes with maple beans.
To free up bandwidth, Sherman has paused Tatanka Truck’s operations and he’s selling the physical truck to an unspecified tribe in Minnesota. Yet Sherman will maintain the brand “Tatanka Truck” for future use. Now Sherman is diving full-force into his role driving the indigenous culinary revival—among a formidable, global network of indigenous chefs and food ambassadors blazing trails, too.
When the cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen releases October 10, it’s full steam ahead for Sioux Chef team with tours to promote the cookbook on the east coast, west coast, Midwest, and prospectively in spring 2018, in the southwest.
Since news about Sherman’s cookbook dropped, demand has been high for The Sioux Chef appearances. While Sherman is making his rounds on the east coast to the Culinary Institute of America, Yale University, New York University, and Brown University, among other renowned institutions, he’ll prepare a multi-course indigenous dinner at the James Beard House on October 27.
“This will be our first dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, which is a pretty cool honor,” Sherman said. “We’re going to tackle that dinner by doing ‘Indigenous Manhattan’ as a theme, using our knowledge of who was living there before, and understanding what plants are growing there, what people were gathering from the shores, what the agriculture was like.”
The Sioux Chef team previously collaborated with the James Beard Foundation at the World’s Fair in Milan in 2015. Sherman, who hosted a pop-up kitchen for two nights, was among a rotation of chefs representing the cuisine of the United States.
The Sioux Chef’s Core Mission: Reviving Indigenous Food Systems
In an effort to understand North America from an indigenous perspective, and all its diversity, Sherman and his team of indigenous chefs, ethnobotanists, growers and researchers created a “roadmap” of all the pieces that make up an indigenous food system. On the NATIFS.org resource page, the four-part, medicine wheel-like diagram breaks down the four steps of understanding the foundations of indigenous food systems:
1) The removal of colonized thought.
2) Reconnect spiritually, mentally, physically with the natural world.
3) Understand and build indigenous foundations.
4) Regain, retain, share and practice knowledge.
“Our work is really trying to understand all the food systems: the agriculture, the wild food systems, the hunting, fishing, cooking techniques, food preservation techniques, where people got salts and fats and sugars, even crafting techniques and medicinal uses of the plants,” Sherman said. “There’s so much to it. A lot of it is understanding history and regional history, too, so you can see the diversity that’s out there across the board.”
Sherman thinks it’s critical for indigenous communities to regain this connection to their food. While, as a chef, his relationship with food has always been hyperlocal, exploring food through an indigenous lens made all the difference for his personal development. “I’ve been able to grow on pretty much all levels: intellectually and spiritually. It’s opened up so much, getting to know the plants and the seasons,” Sherman said.
Indigenous knowledge is interwoven in food—in the names of wild plants, their properties and values. Thousands of years of culinary tradition passed down generation to generation nearly came to a dead halt because of colonialism and forced assimilation. Reservation systems removed indigenous peoples from their lands and deprived them of their traditional food ways. Meanwhile government commodities lead to malnutrition. The disruption of indigenous food systems fueled the high-rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease present on reservations today.
Beyond that, during the Plains Indian Wars, buffalo were slaughtered nearly to extinction as a means of cultural genocide. Indigenous peoples themselves were murdered and tortured. Take the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in Sherman’s Minnesota backyard, for instance. It marked the largest mass execution in U.S. history—38 Dakota men were hanged and 3,000 Dakota people were held captive and then forced on a death march westward out of Minnesota.
Reversing the powers of oppression is why the reclamation of ancestral education is vital. Sherman sees food at the heart of that; it showcases the strength and resilience of indigenous peoples. Food also offers a visceral way to remember. Sherman observes that oftentimes, when elders taste traditional flavors of their heritage—whether it be chokecherries, cedar or spruce tips, or wild tubers like hopniss and wapato—they experience a flood of memories. “It sends them backwards to unlock a lot of these beautiful, ancestral memories,” Sherman said.
“There are so many wild foods around us that tell a story,” Sherman said. “I feel like the plants have been there this whole time, and they’re open to teaching people, if you just take the time to learn and to listen.”
While, over the course of recent decades, the food sovereignty movement has grown organically across Turtle Island, Sherman believes this generation of indigenous chefs, growers and seed protectors is reviving indigenous food ways in this lifetime. “We’re growing at an exponential rate,” Sherman said.
The Sioux Chef team consists of 10 people, including indigenous chefs, such as Chef de Cuisine Brian Yazzie (Diné), and an ethnobotanist. Sherman is also a fan of collaborating. Among a long list of notable indigenous chefs, he’s hosted events with Karlos Baca (Diné, Ute, Tewa), founder of Taste of Native Cuisine, and Oaxacan chef Neftalí Duran, who was named Native American Chef of the Year in 2014 by the Smithsonian Institution. Sherman is active within Slow Food Turtle Island, among other indigenous-lead organizations, and he regularly works with indigenous growers and seed keepers like Rowen White.
Sherman and his Sioux Chef army are redefining North American food, “because it should be rooted deep within its indigenous history,” Sherman said.