Sioux chef revives Native American tastes of yesteryear

Minnesota restaurant specializing in original style of Lakota tribal cooking aims for healthy gastronomic options

Sherman sweetens corn mush with pure maple sugar. He encourages students to look outside more carefully for things that are edible or medicinal, including plants and flowers.
Kayla Gahagan

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Even with the door closed, the sweet smell of blueberries, sage and tender cuts of buffalo permeated the halls of a downtown Minneapolis building. Chef Sean Sherman lingered behind a stove, his hands slow and steady as he drizzled sunflower oil into a hot pan.

“I like to think, What if I was here 300 years ago?” he said, scanning the faces of a group of Native American youths. “What would I eat?”

That question was not only at the heart of a recent reality cooking show filmed for a local nonprofit; it’s also the impetus behind an ambitious restaurant concept Sherman first envisioned seven years ago when he started research to write a Lakota cookbook.

An Oglala Lakota who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, he was startled by the lack of information on indigenous diets or even opportunities to visit successful Native restaurants.

“I had no idea,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t just fry bread. I knew Native food was a lot more than that.”

‘I like to think, What if I was here 300 years ago? What would I eat?’

Sean Sherman

chef, Sioux Chef

Fast-forward to the present day. Sherman has studied the diets of Native Americans before European influence and assimilation, experimented with precolonized flavors and ingredients and served as the executive chef at a popular restaurant in the Twin Cities. Now the 40-year-old plans to do what few have done: open a purely indigenous restaurant that focuses solely on precolonization Sioux and Ojibwe cuisine.

The restaurant, to be called Sioux Chef, will soon open its doors in the Minneapolis area. Deer, buffalo, rabbits, walleye, trout and duck will make the menu, paired with other local items like juniper berries, prairie turnips, dandelions, chard, kale, spinach and the symbiotic trio that Native Americans have dubbed the three sisters — corn, beans and squash.

It also means little or no white flour, processed sugar or olive oil in the kitchen.

Very little is off limits for Sherman, whose long black ponytail swishes against the back of a chef’s coat as he works. He makes tea out of cedar, spruce, white pine and balsam fir. He garnishes his dishes with microgreens, sweetens corn meal mush with pure maple sugar and cooks with sunflower, hazelnut and walnut oils.

“I’m not pushing healthy food but traditional food,” he said. “It’s traditional food in a modern context, and it just happens to be healthy.”

At the end of the cooking show, he arranges a dish of yellow and purple carrots, a small slab of buffalo drizzled in wojapi berry sauce, fresh greens and corn mush. It’s a far cry from the foods 12-year-old Alexis Crowe said she’s used to eating — macaroni and cheese, enchiladas, chicken, beef and eggs.

“I eat foods with a lot of grease, fried foods,” she said. “I barely eat vegetables. I eat cornmeal sometimes, but it’s out of the box.”

Buffalo topped with wojapi berry sauce, yellow and purple carrots and corn mush, garnished with fresh microgreens.
Kayla Gahagan

Getting the next generation to change its mindset is one of the reasons Michael Roberts, president and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, helps organize a Native Food Summit in Green Bay, Wisconsin, each year where Sherman has been included as a chef.

“Sean is fascinated by food,” Roberts said. “When you look at the cuisine Americans have sampled, it used to be only Italian and Chinese were as far as we went, but now there’s every ethnicity. America’s looking for new flavors and ideas. The timing might be just right.”

More seriously, he added, is Sherman’s mission to educate people.

“There’s a real awareness of the poor health on Indian reservations,” Roberts said. “There used to be no recorded incidents of diabetes on reservations, even up to the 1930s. There must have been something wonderful in Native diets." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native adults over the age of 20 were obese in 2011 and 2012. That number rises to almost 70 percent when counting how many Native adults over the age of 20 are overweight, including obesity. The CDC has also reported that cancer is the No. 1 killer of Natives, with heart disease and diabetes ranking second and fourth.

Christine Werner, 23, works as Sherman’s event coordinator and catering organizer and sees him as part of a bigger movement in the U.S. “He made me rethink the word ‘original,’” she said. “It’s literally about origins.”

But opening a restaurant is a cutthroat business, and Sherman’s establishment could be a tough sell at first. “It’s the faux pas that it might be too healthy and not taste good,” she said. “The No. 1 barrier is getting someone in the door. It’s an awesome way to teach that lesson. Healthy food can taste good. Why eat food from all over the world when the food right under our feet is delicious?”

As part of a reality TV show, Sherman cooked for a group of Native American youths at White Earth in Minneapolis in December.
Kayla Gahagan

All people, not just Native Americans, would benefit from indigenous food, she added. “We took a wrong turn somewhere,” she said. “We could have had American cuisine, but we destroyed it somewhere.”

That wrong turn, many say, was during the time of forced assimilation and the removal of tribes from their land. Many young Native Americans were sent to boarding schools, and entire generations lost out on learning to farm, hunt and fish, Sherman said. Today many reservations rely on U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity food, which is packaged and processed.

Now, Sherman said, unhealthy eating is nothing more than “convenience and habit,” and the result is high rates of diabetes, cancer and obesity among Natives in the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes. “The diets just fell apart,” he said. “They used to gather foods and preserve them, and once that stopped, they relied on government food, and we see what happened. Natives used to live to a nice old age.”

During the cooking show, Sherman challenged the students to view the world through a different lens. Several had never tasted buffalo, spent little time outdoors and had never seen a carrot other than orange ones.

“You guys need to get out and hike,” he said, placing a fat knife over a handful of juniper berries and striking it with the heel of his hand to crush them. “You just look out your windows and in the forest, and it’s all food. Everything tastes really good drenched in fat, but it’s not good for you.”

The dandelion is a prime example. “We didn’t really have a word for ‘weed’ because everything had a purpose,” he said. “The dandelion wasn’t here before Europeans. The whole plant is edible and makes a good salad.”

But, he said, “people try to sell you chemicals to kill them.”

Fresh ingredients, including yellow and purple carrots and microgreens, for the children to try.
Kayla Gahagan

Nephi Craig, executive chef for the Summit restaurant at a ski resort in northeastern Arizona for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, feels a connection with Sherman’s mission. The entire Summit culinary team is composed of Natives from the local tribe.

The restaurant serves indigenous food from reservations across the country, including Navajo heritage churro lamb and salmon from the Pacific Northwest, as well as local fruits and nuts, acorns, cactus fruit and wild game.

Why aren’t there more like him and Sherman? “For those of us on the reservation, the opportunity or notion to become a fine dining chef is an outlandish concept,” he said. “That’s a Western concept. We’re not a restaurant culture.”

He’s hoping that changes.

“It’s about building a culture of chefs in Native communities and tapping into that ancestral knowledge,” he said. “It’s a generational and a spiritual battle. It’s a choice to prepare Native food … Hopefully, people will return to action and responsibility and the indigenous principles of human interaction and relationship with the landscape.”

After the cooking show wrapped, Sherman and Werner headed to the Global Market — a popular ethnic center in the center of a city that has become home to thousands of Hmong, Vietnamese and Ethiopian refugees over the years. The market is a mecca of food and trinkets, foreign teas and cookies, gifts and language. It’s a prime example, Sherman says, of why here and now is just right for a Native American restaurant.

“It’s not about me becoming a famous chef,” he said. “It’s that Native people had amazing flavors to play with, and we are just putting that in a modern context.”

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