The chef’s commitment to decolonizing food means that many of today’s staples—including wheat flour, dairy, pork, and processed sugar—are literally off the table.

By Katherine Martinelli
October 14, 2019
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One recent evening in Ann Arbor, MI, Sean Sherman of The Sioux Chef prepared a dinner at Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant in the Zingerman’s family of businesses. The Oglala Lakota chef was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is now based in Minneapolis, where he has garnered acclaim (and two James Beard Awards) for his thoughtful interpretation of traditional and contemporary Indigenous cuisine

All of the ingredients on the menu, a dinner of the Blueberry Harvest Moon (Potowatomi), could have been harvested in precolonial Michigan. Sherman’s commitment to decolonizing food means that many of today’s staples—including wheat flour, dairy, pork, and processed cane sugar—are literally off the table. Indigenous Food Lab, his forthcoming debut brick-and-mortar restaurant, is slated to open in Minneapolis next spring, pending a successful capital campaign, and this feels like a taste of what's to come. 

A local farmer foraged the ingredients for a dish of smoked lake fish, cattail, wild rice dumpling, watercress, and nettle broth. There was maple-braised rabbit with sunchoke, forest mushroom, and raspberry-rosehip sauce, as well as a venison tamale with smoked blueberry sauce, summer squash, wild greens, and corn ash. Dessert was a pumpkin seed tart that, like much of Sherman’s food, was naturally vegan and gluten free.

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For Sherman, the revitalization of Indigenous food systems is not only a way to address health and financial disparities within Native American communities and to start healing after centuries of trauma, but it's also a way forward to a healthier, more sustainable world.

Mette Nielsen

"There's this vast global knowledge base of Indigenous peoples out there that can be tapped into because the Indigenous peoples had that blueprint of living sustainably and utilizing plant knowledge," said Sherman. "And we see a better future." He believes the restaurant model is one way to tackle this. 

As such, Sherman—who until now has offered catering through The Sioux Chef and ran a successful food truck called the Tatanka Truck—has set his sights on his first two brick-and-mortar restaurants, which he says will be the first fully decolonized full-time restaurants in the United States. (There are some others doing this work, like Berkeley’s Café Ohlone and LA’s Mesoamerican Alchemy Organica, but they are pop-ups; Tocabe in Denver and Gatherings Cafe at the Minneapolis American Indian Center are fully operational but not fully decolonized.)

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The first restaurant, Indigenous Food Lab, will be the edible arm of his non-profit organization, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) and will be situated downstairs.

“The work that we're trying to do is to really become a resource for Indigenous education and a place where people can come and learn about Indigenous food ways,” said Sherman. Indigenous Food Lab will be an integral part of that outreach by offering an accessible—and delicious—entry point into Indigenous American cuisine.  

The plan for Indigenous Food Lab, according to Dana Thompson, co-owner and COO of The Sioux Chef, is to serve food a la carte on the weekdays, family style on weekday evenings, and prix fixe on weekends. This will offer something for everyone, from a casual lunch to a more elegant weekend dinner.

Upstairs, Sherman, Thompson, and their team will offer classes on cooking, wild foods, ethnobotony, seed saving, food preservation, history, and more.

“We believe the value of this Indigenous knowledge is so important,” says Sherman. “We really believe that we can reclaim a lot of health, and a lot of cultural revitalization, and really secure a lot of culture through the development of our food systems.”

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After the Indigenous Food Lab opens in spring 2020, the second restaurant, a for-profit venture that will launch later in 2020, will be the first year-round restaurant to open in the Minneapolis Parks System. Called Owamni by the Sioux Chef, it’s part of the big RiverFirst revitalization project on a formerly industrial 11-mile strip of the Mississippi riverfront, which is also a sacred area with a rich history for the Dakota tribe. The food here will be fast casual, with offerings like Indigenous-inspired tacos with fillings such as sage-smoked turkey.

Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Like all of Sherman’s projects, these restaurants will be local in the truest sense of the word. In Sherman’s lexicon, local isn’t a trendy buzzword, but rather a full embrace of the ingredients that were native to that particular region prior to colonial invasion. He prioritizes sourcing from Native American businesses and farmers whenever possible.

It’s this focus on history and hyperlocality that Sherman wants to extend beyond his home turf of Minneapolis.

“Our goal is to open up Indigenous Food Labs in cities everywhere we can, with each one being a regional center of that area to help tribes around it,” says Sherman. “Our goal, even though we're in Minneapolis, is to reach out to the tribal communities around us and help them with the development of some kind of food entity in their community that can help cater to their community and serve this healthy, beautiful Indigenous food and help them design it so it's particular to their tribe, their language, their history, their region, the flavors around them.”

And Sherman isn’t stopping there. He wants to see Indigenous Food Labs across the globe that can draw on the wealth of local, ancestral knowledge to create restaurants and education centers. He believes the restaurant model—one with strong systems in place to train people and replicate its basic principles—could be an effective tactic. 

“We always tell people that you should be the answer to your ancestors prayers, and the best thing you can do in your lifetime is set up the next generation for success," said Sherman. "So all we're doing is for the future; we're not going to see the end of our work by far. We're just really planting seeds.”

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