Imagine savoring smoked turkey soup prepared with burnt sage; bison that has been slow-cooked, in spruce boughs; smoked trout or walleye and sunflower and hazelnut crisp—ingredients found in traditional Native American cuisine. Until colonization pork, chicken, beef, sugar, dairy, and eggs were completely absent from the Native American diet.
Re-introducing and incorporating indigenous foods into modern cuisine is the goal of Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Chef Sean Sherman and his team at The Sioux Chef. They hope to sign a lease and begin build-out for their latest venture, in urban Minneapolis, within the next year—an Indigenous Food Lab (IFL).
The lab will be part of The Sioux Chef’s nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) organization. The IFL will initially feature an indigenous restaurant teaching food service skills. Research and development regarding indigenous foods will continue and a classroom will facilitate education of Native Americans about their native foodways. During phase two the IFL will help local tribes create satellite indigenous kitchens. Finally, The Sioux Chef team hopes to replicate this model across North America.
A BLUEPRINT FOR CHANGE
Sherman began cooking before his teens, after his family left the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and his mother began working three jobs. At barely 13, he entered his first restaurant kitchen.
As Sherman’s career progressed, he saw correlations between Native American health issues and government-supplied food, full of sodium and sugar. Approximately half of Pine Ridge Reservation residents live in poverty with very high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. But low-glycemic and low-salt indigenous foods also reflect enormous plant and animal diversity.
Then Sherman had an epiphany. “I should be focused on the [culinary] background of my own heritage. We can work on a lot of health problems just through eating our traditional foods.” Think wild rice plus indigenous corn, beans, squash, wild tubers, and spices, as well as bison, venison, fish, duck, quail, and turkey.
Sherman launched The Sioux Chef in 2014, after a decade of research. He hired his partner, current co-owner and COO, Dana Thompson, in the fall. The for-profit venture encompasses a food truck, catering services, Sherman’s first cookbook, and hiring/training of many chefs.
Ethnobotanists—including his Uncle Richard Sherman—food preservationists, foragers, artists, musicians, additional chefs, and more comprise the R & D team; Sherman initially networked with them through speaking engagements and community dinners held across the nation.
“We see a need to get this information out to as many communities as possible, and to become a global leader regarding appreciation of indigenous food knowledge,” Sherman says. “We should be celebrating so much incredible food diversity.”
NATIFS followed. “[This] nonprofit creates a bigger movement,” Sherman says, “to pursue and push indigenous food education and access, as well as indigenous food business creation.
“We’re trying to absorb as much ancestral knowledge [about traditional food] as possible and then evolve into something better—focusing on regional, seasonal, and indigenous ingredients that taste exactly like where we are,” Sherman says. “[We want] to use indigenous food producers first and try to forage whatever is in season.”
About 18 months ago NATIFS did just that while preparing dinner at the James Beard House. The meal showcased indigenous foods of Manhattan, including fresh fish and local plants foraged by students from the Culinary Institute of America. “With such a great ‘stage’ to work from, it helps us create awareness,” Sherman says.
He and his team have garnered plenty of recognition for their efforts. Sherman received a 2015 First Peoples Fund fellowship and the National Center’s 2018 First American Entrepreneurship Award. He was also named a 2018 Bush (Foundation) Fellow. The New York Times, Saveur Magazine, Eater, and Food and Wine Magazine have profiled Sherman’s work, too.
Sherman’s first cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, received a James Beard award for Best American Cookbook 2018; and his 2019 Leadership Award from the Foundation recognizes his efforts surrounding awareness and use of indigenous foods.
No matter where Sherman speaks and teaches, he advocates the importance of preparing native plants and animals in order to live sustainably. “There should be no such word as food desert because deserts are ripe with food if you know how to look for it,” he says.
Sherman ultimately wants to open restaurants across North America using almost a franchise model. Each one will demonstrate regional food diversity while providing deeper understanding of the land and the people that previously lived there. “Understanding other people’s food is a great way to really understand who they are, Sherman says.